Texas Alcohol Campaign Could Drive Off Meetings - 2006-05-11

Originally published April 24, 2006 in MeetingNews

Spurred by residents' complaints and intense media coverage, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission suspended a controversial program known as Operation Last Call, which had some meeting planners steering clear of Texas.

The aggressive TABC program was created last year to crack down on the state's high frequency of drunk-driving incidents. But recent news reports described TABC agents making what some called unwarranted arrests, including a highly publicized jailing of a visiting Arkansas man for having six beers in the bar of the Irving, Texas hotel where he was staying. The man, who said he did not plan to leave the hotel that night, subsequently lost his job because of the arrest.

"The good people of Texas seem to be taking a 'Minority Report' view of social behavior and to have forgotten the Bill of Rights," said Tom Rodeheaver of New York-based site-selection provider Caffeine Media, in reference to the Tom Cruise movie in which people are arrested based on predictions of their future behavior. "I hope someone takes their arrest to the Supreme Court, because this isn't right. I'm just thankful Texas isn't the only place to have a meeting."

Texas state legislators received many complaints from residents, mostly in the Dallas area, and seem to have taken them seriously. According to the Houston Chronicle, TABC administrator Alan Steen notified the committee during the week of April 10 that the program would be suspended until it could be reviewed by the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

"The committee is interested in looking at the program to see if it's being administered fairly and consistently, and to make sure that the agents are trained appropriately," said an aide for State Representative Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), who is vice chair of the committee, which oversees the TABC. "We want to make sure [public-intoxication] laws are complied with, but we certainly don't want to be seen as unfriendly to conventions and tourism."

He added, "The goals of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission are appropriate, and they are to reduce DWIs in the state of Texas."

But well-known planner Steve Kemble of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Design said the industry would suffer from this program if it remains aggressive.

"The convention industry in Dallas is on a long-overdue upswing, and this is not the type of negative publicity our industry needed at this point," Kemble said. "This could be a potential setback for both the meetings and tourism industries, not only in Dallas but the entire state of Texas."

Douglas Hitt, president of Las Vegas-based Event Management Solutions, said he wouldn't risk recommending Texas to his clients because of the TABC campaign.

"There are other destinations where our customers don't need to risk the embarrassment of an overzealous alcohol control authority," Hitt said. "There are certain groups that are low-alcohol consumption, but some of our more recreational and social events would certainly be a concern."

But Lynne Tiras, president of Houston-based International Meeting Managers, said she supports the initiative and doesn't think it will impact the meetings industry much. "I think the more enforcement the better, for the safety of people who are out on the roads," she said.

Another Texas meeting planner, Annette Hicks, director of meetings and expositions for the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said people from out of state who avoid meetings in Texas have a misconception of what's happening.

"I don't think if I walked into a bar and had a drink I'd be arrested," she said. "It's people who are drinking too much. There's no need to be alarmed — that's narrow-mindedness by someone who doesn't have all the facts. We're not going to do something to affect our meetings business."

Yet out-of-state planners like Monica Compton, an Atlanta-based event management consultant with Pinnacle Productions Inc., are taking these arrests into consideration.

"Part of the experience of face-to-face meetings is to network and enjoy the company of others," said Compton. "In our business that includes having a glass of wine or a cocktail. While I don't think people should get drunk, I also don't think this law is appropriate. As an attendee, it would certainly disappoint me if a meeting was booked in an area with this law. As a planner I would make sure the decision makers understand this could lead to a liability on their part."

Although the meetings industry supports efforts to prevent drunk driving, Kemble said, this TABC program "goes in the wrong direction."

"I heard that Phillip Jones at the Dallas CVB had received hundreds of calls and letters from people concerned about the crackdown," Kemble said. "I reached for my heart medicine when I heard that two groups, one with 25,000 attendees, said they are not considering Dallas because of the crackdown."

Jones, the Dallas bureau's CEO, said he has tried to allay planners' fears based on conversations he has had with TABC officials. At press time, he anticipated that after the hearing on the 17th, the TABC will try to prevent drunk driving, rather than arrest people who were drinking but not driving.