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Convention Board Rejects Resignation of Embattled Chief

Finances: Official is under fire for fewer bookings and for spending, but the board says he is needed.

October 11, 2002|PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing criticism for lavish spending and lagging event bookings, George Kirkland offered to resign the presidency of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau on Thursday, but board members refused to accept his offer, saying that they need him to stay and help reform the agency.

Kirkland, who became bureau president in 1989, made the offer to step aside during a meeting of the bureau's executive board, said board Chairman Alan Rothenberg.

"In the course of the meeting, George said that if it would solve the problems, he cares about the bureau and the city and he would step aside," Rothenberg said. "It wasn't just a gesture. It was sincere. But we don't see where that would solve any problems, and it might make the problems worse."

About 42 major conventions have canceled plans to come to Los Angeles in the last three years. Only 16 major events are booked for next year, down from 28 this year and 35 the year before.

Rothenberg said Kirkland has the skills to turn the performance of the bureau around, but that other measures need to be taken. Los Angeles, he said, continues to lose conventions because there are so few modern hotel rooms within close walking distance of the city's convention center.

"George is recognized around the country as the dean, a leader in this industry," Rothenberg said. "We totally support George."

The drop in convention business is expected to result in a decline in visitor spending of $35 million next year. The prospects of such a decline recently prompted the managers of nine downtown hotels to demand a change in leadership and direction of the agency.

Peter Zen, owner of the Bonaventure Hotel and chairman of the city Convention Center Board, said he was disappointed that the board had not accepted Kirkland's offer to step aside.

"If the board thinks he is doing a good job, then they have to re-examine their criteria for doing a good job," Zen said.

Kirkland did not return calls seeking comment. One source familiar with the issue said some board members felt it was not the right time for Kirkland to quit, given that the city government will soon be considering whether to renew its contract with the convention bureau.

In part, the concerns about the bureau's booking performance have been exacerbated by its spending habits. In recent years, the bureau has spent $3 million annually on food, travel and entertainment in the name of promoting the city to potential convention customers and tourists.

Kirkland's $285,000 salary was supplemented by $199,000 in bonuses in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2000. He led a number of trips abroad, including one in which the bureau rented a hall at Kensington Palace to entertain airline executives and spent $84,000 taking tour operators to the Wimbledon tennis championships.

One year, the bureau spent $835,000 on a gala dinner in which 3,000 tour operators were entertained in Glasgow, Scotland, by pop singer Natalie Cole and her orchestra.

The spending might not have caused so much stir if the bureau had been more successful in bringing conventions and tourists to Los Angeles, some critics said.

Rothenberg acknowledged that Kirkland has had some problems.

"George is not perfect. He has made mistakes," the chairman said.

But he also cited other factors in the poor booking rate.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia last year, for instance, suppressed tourism across the country, including Los Angeles.

And for Los Angeles, the city's reputation remains a stumbling block, he added.

"We have a problem in this city, and that is our image outside the city stinks," Rothenberg said.

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