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George Kirkland, 60; Headed L.A. Visitors Bureau for 13-Plus Years

June 12, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

George D. Kirkland, president of L.A. Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau, died Wednesday morning at his home in Century City. He was 60.

Kirkland, who led the bureau for more than 13 years, let its board of directors know in April that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He continued at his job until his waning health forced him to leave in mid-May.

Leaders of the destination marketing industry said Kirkland had a major effect on the business. John Marks, president and chief executive of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, called him an "exceptionally gifted leader and visionary in the destination marketing industry."

"He was oftentimes in front of the curve of conventional wisdom with new initiatives or marketing strategies," Marks said. "He wasn't afraid to take a risk in terms of sales and marketing."

Kirkland had come under some criticism in recent years from Los Angeles city officials concerned at the sharp downturn in conventions held in the city and reports of excessive spending by the bureau to attract customers.

In late April, Mayor James K. Hahn proposed cutting millions of dollars from the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau budget, a step that agency officials say would eliminate nearly half the staff and force the closing of overseas offices.

But even some critics of the agency conceded that the spending might not have been a problem had it led to considerable new business.

On Wednesday, Hahn issued a statement saying he was saddened to learn of Kirkland's death. The mayor called him a "strong promoter of the city" and said he "appreciated his enthusiasm ... and his efforts to boost tourism."

Commenting specifically on recent criticism of the visitors bureau, Marks of San Francisco said Kirkland "faced very difficult challenges in Los Angeles, particularly in the downtown area."

"My sense is that much of the criticism he received is the result of what many people consider a 'product deficiency' in the downtown area that makes for a difficult sell," Marks said.

Linda Conlin, the U.S. Department of Commerce's assistant secretary for trade development, recalled Kirkland as someone whose counsel was valued by leaders in government and private enterprise alike.

"In my 30 years in the industry, he stands out as an exceptional leader," she said. "Los Angeles was very fortunate to have had him."

Kirkland was active in many organizations in the city and served on the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. He was also past chairman of the American Society of Association Executives, a group for professionals who manage trade associations, membership societies and voluntary nonprofit groups.

He began his career with the Oakland convention bureau in his native city. He also worked for the visitors bureau in Anaheim and was president of the Greater Miami, San Francisco and Kansas City bureaus.

Kirkland is survived by his wife, Frances; a son, George Jr.; a daughter, Kathleen Kirkland Craig; and three grandchildren.

Funeral services are private.

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