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Visitor Bureau's High Life

June 01, 2002

Most businesspeople swear by the old saw, "You've got to spend money to make money." The president and board of directors of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau appear to favor a far simpler dictum: You've got to spend money. Period.

At a request from The Times, the bureau last week released records, albeit heavily edited, of its spending from 1997 to 2000. Considering what was left in, it's frightening to imagine what could have been edited out.

Never mind the $835,000 to treat 3,000 travel agents to a gala dinner and music by Natalie Cole and her orchestra in Glasgow, Scotland, $84,000 to host 25 English tour operators at the Wimbledon tennis tournament and $11,600 to rent a hall in Kensington Palace to wine and dine airline executives. Each of these soirees needed hosts, which meant an $854-per-night hotel suite here and a $7,200 airline ticket there and some high-class parties for bureau President George Kirkland, bureau board members and officials, city airport commissioners and lucky Ron Deaton, the city's chief legislative analyst.

The private, nonprofit bureau is responsible for renting the Los Angeles Convention Center and promoting regional tourism; for this it receives almost $18 million in city hotel bed taxes. (The rest of its $27.9-million budget comes mainly from membership dues.)

What the city gets for its investment, theoretically, is the "making money" part of the business adage, the part where conventioneers and tourists come to Los Angeles and spend big on hotel rooms, restaurants, entertainment and gewgaws. But the bucks spent on Glasgow galas and Wimbledon teas--not to mention pricey hotel rooms and business-class air fare--aren't buying much bang back in Southern California.

Even before last year's terrorist attacks knocked the bottom out of the tourism business, the situation was dismal. With 42 major conventions canceled over the last three years, the center's exhibit space and meeting rooms have been as likely to be empty as full. Yet the bureau paid bonuses to its sales staff and executives even for bookings that later were canceled. The bureau also has failed in two of the last three years to reach goals for boosting tourism.

Booking troubles are laid to the lack of hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, a deficit that private developers have deemed too risky to fill due to the lack of bookings.

The City Council voted last month to fix this chicken-or-egg problem by setting up a nonprofit corporation to issue tax-exempt bonds and build a 1,200-room hotel. For the gamble to pay off, the visitors bureau has to be able to deliver conventions, or the city should give the contract to some other organization when it expires in June 2003.

Yes, a certain amount of wining and dining is expected when trying to attract travelers to Los Angeles. But the bureau has got to spend money wisely, even if it takes watchful monitoring by the City Council over the next year. And it's got to make money too.

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