Political Animals

When the courtship for the 2000 presidential conventions began in 1996, few predicted Philadelphia would make it past the first round of consideration. The problem: Not enough hotel space, and not enough major hoteliers (and financing) to add the necessary rooms, either through expansion or new properties. Enter the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Mayor Rendell wanted to go after both parties, but we needed another 2,500 rooms in and around the convention center," says bureau president Tom Muldoon. So the city, the CVB, and the Philadelphia Commerce Department crafted a plan. "Our job was to be the expert source, to explain the need to all parties and continuously massage the numbers so the hoteliers, real estate companies, and financial people could close the deal."

The plan proved golden. The city received more than $100 million in HUD funds and tax breaks to finance hotel development, and the Republicans were able to come to town, giving the city a huge financial and morale boost.

While the effort was above and beyond the normal call of CVB duty, it shouldn't seem surprising. Most planners associate bureaus with such bread-and-butter activities as marketing, promotion, and standard convention services (coordinating with hotels, venues, transportation companies, and DMCs). But when needed, bureaus can also wield considerable political and civic clout."CVBs have connections not only to the hospitality industry, but the entire community and their elected officials, and that counts for a lot," says Barbara Gottshalk, director of marketing and communications for the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus. "Because bureaus are so involved in all those segments, it's not at all surprising that they're able to initiate positive, lasting changes."

Walking the Line

The Philadelphia coalition succeeded largely because of Muldoon's connections. For example, during the bid process, the bureau constantly reminded and updated hoteliers and developers about the city's healthy economic outlook.

More than a year after the convention, the long-term effects of the finance package -- roughly $500 million in development by Loews, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and other hoteliers, says Muldoon -- are reaping big dividends. "In the end, 2,800 of the 4,500 hotel rooms built used some of the financing pieces," he adds. "Plus, we have twenty-seven citywide conventions slated for 2002, ten more than 2001, and about double the peak room-nights."

The Bar Gets Raised

In Houston, Gerard "Jordy" Tollett does double duty as president of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau and chief of staff for Mayor Lee Brown. Wearing two hats recently proved serendipitous, as Tollett was able to negotiate an amendment to a city ordinance that banned bars within 300 feet of a church or private school. At issue were two proposed upscale hotel conversions, set to open by 2003, on historic-designated sites.

"We negotiated with the churches and agreed on language spelling out that these would be high-end properties, not dumpy excuses for a bar, which was their concern," says Tollett. "The law needed amending for the project to work and we were able to construct options reasonable to everyone."

The Big Sweep

The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau's own visitor surveys revealed a problem: Even the Big Easy's biggest fans had some reservations.

"People were saying, 'We love coming to the French Quarter, but it seems to get a little dirtier every time we return,'" says Steve Ferran, general manager of the Omni Royal Orleans and Omni Royal Crescent hotels, and a former chairman of the CVB.

So the bureau initiated a drive, in conjunction with local residents and city and state officials, to clean up the Quarter. Starting last month, the two-year pilot program, funded annually at $375,000 by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, will provide increased trash pickup, pressure-washing of sidewalks and gutters, and around-the-clock sweeping.

The bureau's effort already rates kudos from Marilyn Sullivan, director of conference and convention planning for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, which is coming to the city for it's annual meeting. "If the city is going ahead with this cleanup program we would certainly promote that in our literature," she says.

Massaging the Mandates

Until a few years ago, Detroit's COBO Conference/Exhibition Center was a quagmire of regulations, leaving exhibitors exasperated from setup and operation restrictions and spiraling costs. In 1999, the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau put on the brakes, gathering planners, union members, and city officials to consider changes.

The mayor came to several meetings, and even appointed his deputy mayor to lead the task force. After several sessions, all sides agreed to relax, literally. "If a particular task required three workers to set up a booth, it was changed to two," says bureau president and CEO Larry Alexander.

As a result, the American Welding Society is returning in 2003 with about 20,000 attendees. "The changes helped a lot," says Tom Davis, the group's managing director of exposition sales. "Easing cost concerns is a big step forward."

It's a step that the bureau initiated, and just one of many that should remind planners that there are folks willing to stand up for their needs in most every city.