CEO defends VisitDallas, asks for time to make changes

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Dallas

The CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau said Tuesday that the agency brings $260 million in economic activity every year in exchange for the $30 million it receives in public money, a success rate that warrants its continued contract with the city.

Squaring off Tuesday with a Dallas City Council subcommittee, the bureau’s CEO, Phillip Jones, defended his job, saying that when he came to the city in 2003, Dallas ranked 16th as a national convention destination. Under his guidance, he said, it has become the 6th most popular.

Jones and several members of the city staff charged with oversight of the bureau were questioned about a city audit released in January that found the bureau has provided murky, debatable metrics regarding hotel occupancy and other key measures of its performance. The audit also found that the bureau reported its expenses in ways that “inhibit appropriate monitoring” by the city.

City council member Scott Griggs, who is also part of the seven-member  Government Performance and Financial Management Committee that grilled Jones and city staff, questioned the reporting of economic activity by the bureau, also known as VisitDallas. The bureau and its executives are paid in part based on that activity.

In particular, Griggs asked how VisitDallas can authoritatively state the number of rooms sold, since the audit found possible errors in the reporting of the sales.

Jones said he reported the numbers based on booking contracts and added that some third-party dwelling companies, including Airbnb, VRBO and the like, made it harder to calculate actual activity.

Jones said he learned of the issue regarding potentially inaccurate numbers from the audit.

“I’m surprised you weren’t aware of this issue before,” Griggs said. He asked whether, when the question was raised, he sought to disprove the audit’s allegation.

“We certainly could go back and look at that,” Jones said.

Griggs asked if that has been done.

Jones was silent. Instead, interim City Auditor Carol Smith spoke up.

“We did give them time for information to be provided,” Smith said. “The actual report said they could refute any facts that they didn’t think were correct.”

Jones also admitted that VisitDallas offers free tickets for sporting events and concerts to city council members as well as VisitDallas employees in a private box at the American Airlines Center. VisitDallas pays $250,000 a year for the box, tax records show.

“Each event we require two or three staff members to be in attendance to… service the customers,” Jones said. Griggs asked if the box tickets are available to the public.

“The tickets are available to customers and city council members if they request them,” Jones said.

Griggs, who has advocated getting rid of VisitDallas since the audit was released, said, “I see packages of large salaries, large bonuses…” and questionable metrics regarding the economic activity generated by those payouts.

“I would recommend we go ahead and terminate the contract,” he said. “[A]cccording to the contract we can terminate for convenience and move forward with an open bid to procure a new operator.” The committee does not have the authority to take action, although Griggs can bring his motion to the next city council meeting.

City council member Philip Kingston, who is also on the committee previously told Texas Monitor that a proposed plan by the city to fix VisitDallas was insufficient. On Tuesday, he told the committee, “I do not see credibility in the plan to improve [VisitDallas].

“When was the last time these services were competitively bid?” he asked assistant city manager Joey Zapata.

They have never been bid.

Kingston proposed firing VisitDallas and putting the contract out for bid.

Committee chair Jennifer Gates, one of two council members on the board of VisitDallas, suggested the plan to reform VisitDallas be allowed to work, although she noted that some of the proposed improvements present a time crunch. If the council elects to move forward with ousting VisitDallas, or even it if elects to allow the contract to run out in 2020, as it currently stands, plans will have to be made for a successor.

“We’re going have to make a decision on the council about the contract with VisitDallas,” Gates said.

Zapata encouraged her to give the city staff and VisitDallas until May to show improvement. He acknowledged that the contract could be changed or that the VisitDallas funding could be spent elsewhere. But first, he said, “I want to take a very close look at how we can improve this.”

Texas Monitor reported earlier this month that VisitDallas failed to publicly record $190,000 in loans given to Jones in 2015 and 2016. The agency said full reporting of the transactions will be part of its tax return for fiscal year 2017.

Jones received $225,000 in advance payments on a $400,000 retention bonus for his five-year contract signed in 2013. Jones said the payments were for medical care for his son.

Records obtained this week by Texas Monitor show that between 2014 and 2018, Jones spent $303,000 on airfare for 168 trips and an average of $76 a day for ground transportation during that time. Jones also spent an average of $372 a night on 130 nights in hotels during that period, according to figures obtained by Texas Monitor.

Jones promised the committee that he would work hard to reform the agency.

“We will do everything we can to regain your trust,” he said.

The city council will be briefed on Tuesday’s hearing at a future meeting.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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