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Beverly Hills visitors bureau lays off official ambassador

Gregg Donovan, who wore a top hat as he strolled Rodeo Drive and welcomed tourists to high-end stores, lost his job in January because of budget problems. He's fighting with the visitors bureau over a severance package.

February 19, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Gregg Donovan welcomes tourists to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Known for his signature greeting, "Welcome to Beverly Hills! You have arrived," he has been laid off by his employer, the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau.
Gregg Donovan welcomes tourists to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Known… (Nick Ut, Associated Press )

Even on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, one of the world's most expensive stretches of commercial real estate, the nation's economic woes have claimed a longtime employee.

Because of budget problems, the city's visitors bureau has laid off its official ambassador, who has welcomed hundreds of tourists and visitors on Rodeo Drive for the last 11 years.

Gregg Donovan, 51, the top-hat-wearing former hotel concierge, got his walking papers last month. No longer will he stroll Rodeo Drive, welcoming tourists to such high-end stores as Gianni Versace, Jimmy Choo and Battaglia. No longer will he address visitors with his signature greeting: "Welcome to Beverly Hills! You have arrived."

But Donovan is not going quietly.

He says his former employer, the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau, is demanding that he give up the rights to his images on photos taken by the bureau. The bureau wants him to sign a nondisclosure agreement, promising not to discuss his experience on the job publicly. Donovan said the bureau won't give him a $7,000 severance package unless he signs the agreements.

He won't do it, he said, because he wants to write a book about his life in one of America's most luxurious towns. "Eleven years is a lot of stories," he said.

The visitors bureau refused to discuss Donovan, except to say that the ambassador position was eliminated Jan. 14. Spokeswoman Kimberli Samuel said she couldn't comment on a personnel matter.

The visitors bureau recruited Donovan after fallout from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, devastated the local tourism industry. He had already been working since 1999 for 2 Rodeo, an outdoor shopping mall at the corner of Dayton Way and Rodeo Drive, welcoming visitors to a shopping district that Donovan said had a reputation for being snobby.

Now, he says, the city needs him more than ever to draw tourists. "I would like my job back," he said.

Even if he doesn't get his $42,000-a-year job back, Donovan said, he may already have enough stories to fill a book. He was a child actor before becoming a hotel doorman and, briefly, entertainer Bob Hope's personal valet. For years, he worked as a concierge at the downtown Millennium Biltmore Hotel, among other high-end hotels.

On Rodeo Drive, Donovan said, he rubbed shoulders with dozens of celebrities, including Alec Baldwin, Sylvester Stallone, Oprah Winfrey, Dustin Hoffman and Leonardo DiCaprio. He has even had small parts in a few movies, including a speaking role with Harrison Ford in the 2003 film "Hollywood Homicide."

"I'm on a first-name basis with Tom Hanks," Donovan said.

Some of the upscale shop owners on Rodeo Drive say they understand the visitors bureau's financial predicament because business has been slow throughout the city. But some merchants say Donovan may help spur business by making visitors feel welcome to the shops.

"Tourism has not been so hot for a while," said Dow Thanombhand, manager of Battaglia, an upscale clothing store that has been on Rodeo Drive for 52 years. "I think he could help business somewhat."

Hugo.martin@latimes.com

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