The newly hired executive director of the Orange County Convention Center will make about $250,000 a year — and that may be a bargain, according to Mayor Jerry Demings.
A national search took nearly two years before zeroing in on Mark Tester, the mayor’s choice to lead the gigantic convention center at a salary 21% more than his predecessor.
In a memo to county commissioners, Demings said the hunt that found Tester, former head of the Austin (Texas) Convention Center, took longer than expected because Orange County offered salary and benefits below those paid to other executives in the hotel industry or visitors bureaus.
“We discovered our compensation package as a government agency is not as competitive with the other top-tier markets we routinely compete against for shows where most convention centers are privately owned, managed, and operated,” Demings said in a memo Monday to commissioners who will be asked to confirm the choice. “Private enterprises have more flexibility with respect to compensation packages (salary, bonus potential, relocation benefits, etc.)”
The commission is expected to vote on Tester’s hiring at its meeting Tuesday.
Demings said in the memo the average value of compensation packages for directors of nine top-tier convention centers was $321,000, not including other perks such as car allowances and stipends.
Tester will be responsible for overall operations, planning, marketing and all activities at the Orange County Convention Center, the nation’s second-largest with 2.1 million square feet of exhibition space.
He starts his new job Feb. 10.
The job is an important one as the massive complex in Orlando’s tourist district provides an estimated economic impact of $3 billion to tourism-dependent Central Florida.
In recent years, the Convention Center has averaged nearly 200 events, including 115 conventions and trade shows that attract more than 1.5 million attendees to the region.
Tester, who holds a communications degree from Purdue University, is the first full-time executive director of the convention center since Kathie Canning retired in February 2018. Her annual salary was $205,836.
Her shoes were temporarily filled by Jessie Allen, who retired in 2012 after two decades as the facility’s general manager.
While a national search for Canning’s replacement lingered, Allen couldn’t.
He had another commitment beginning in the summer of 2019 and stepped down. The county then appointed David Ingram to serve as acting executive director.
Ingram, who previously worked for Walt Disney World and the Gaylord Palms Resort, will stay on in an unspecified leadership post with the convention center, spokeswoman Nadia Vanderhoof said.
Allen’s annual salary as interim executive director was $185,000. Ingram’s salary as acting executive director is about $159,000.
In his memo, Demings praised Tester’s outlook, saying the new hire’s goals “align perfectly with my expectations for what the Orange County Convention Center can be, both now and in the future.”
He said Tester will focus on “creating high-end customer service and driving economic impact through sales and marketing…”
Demings also said he believes Tester can lead the center to “the next level” as it competes globally for conventions, meetings and trade shows.
Orange County Administrator Byron Brooks also hailed the hiring, saying Tester’s “vast experience in the convention center industry will greatly benefit the Orange County Convention Center and the entire region.”
Brooks predicted Tester will “seize opportunities” to increase the number of convention events, expand the use of available convention space and boost demand for room nights.
Tester described Orlando as “the nation’s premier destination for conventions.”
After trying to find the right fit on its own, the county partnered with SearchWide Global, an executive recruitment firm primarily for companies in the convention, hospitality, tourism and venue management industries.
Demings said in his memo the firm generated “a very strong candidate pool” and the county collaborated with community partners in the tourism, hospitality and hotel industries during the interview process.
Before directing the Austin Convention Center, Tester spent 13 years in senior positions at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, now known as “Choose Chicago,” and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which was owner and manager McCormick Place, the only convention center in the western hemisphere bigger than the one on I-Drive.
Tester arrives as the new executive director as the county forges ahead with another expansion of the convention center.
The $605-million project is expected to add a 200,000-square-foot, multi-purpose/entertainment venue, an 80,000-square-foot ballroom and a signature grand concourse.
The project will be paid for with proceeds from tourist-tax money generated by a 6% levy on the cost of a lodging at a hotel, resort or an Airbnb rental.
Tester, 55, whose father, David, worked with convention and visitors bureaus in Milwaukee, Birmingham, Ala., and other cities, said the Orange County Convention Center’s new expansion project is key to staying competitive.
“It’s smart to continue to evolve as the market evolves,” he said.
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