VisitDallas CEO spends lots of time on the road for his job — and some time racing

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VisitDallas CEO

On several occasions since 2014, the CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau has paired overseas and domestic trips on behalf of the city with endurance racing contests, according to records obtained by The Texas Monitor.

CEO Phillip Jones, who is paid $700,000 a year, ran Ironman races in 2014 in Quebec and in California in 2015, both as part of trips for events promoting Dallas. In 2018, similarly, he ran races in Paris and Norway.

In all but one of those instances, the races were held in or within about 80 miles of the city where the visitors bureau event took place. In the case of the Norway race, the visitors bureau had organized a major media event in London at about the same time, and Jones took a separate side trip from London to Haugesund, Norway, to compete in the race.

In each case, according to the bureau’s chief financial officer, Jones personally paid any extra expenses related to his race participation.

However, records provided by the bureau (also known as VisitDallas) and the city provide a confusing and incomplete picture of expenses for those trips. The confusion is deepened by the fact that conflicting information obtained from the city was contained in expense records originally provided to the city by VisitDallas.

In three of the four cases, for instance, trip dates listed on city records don’t comport with the dates provided to The Texas Monitor by the convention bureau.

For example, city records show Jones began a bureau-sponsored trip to San Diego, Calif., on March 27, 2015. According to records from usatriathlon.org, an event in nearby Oceanside took place that same day. However, Matt Jones (no relation), the bureau’s chief financial officer, said the official event for which the CEO went to California didn’t begin until March 30.

Matt Jones said the CEO paid his own expenses for those additional days. But there’s no way to verify that from the records provided by VisitDallas and the city in response to The Texas Monitor’s request.

The summary-type records show that Phillip Jones’ airfare cost $583 and his hotel bill was $1,588 — but not the exact dates or particular charges that went into those bills.

“I don’t have any personal expense details,” Matt Jones said, in response to a request for more detailed records.

In an email, Phillip Jones said that his schedule since coming to VisitDallas in 2003 has included about 100 travel nights a year.

“On a handful of occasions I have chosen to extend a previously scheduled VisitDallas mission trip for personal travel at my own expense,” he said.

He added that the trips are scheduled “according to market strategy and media availability in those markets … . [M]y schedule is set to coincide with those factors only — and not personal travel when these events are put together.”

In the case of the London event and Norway side trip, city records showed the London trip as starting June 27. VisitDallas records show that it started July 2. VisitDallas paid $5,710 for Phillip Jones’ airfare and $2,353 for his hotel bill on that trip.  Again, no detailed records were available.

Similarly, city records show the Canada trip in 2014 as beginning on Aug. 14. VisitDallas records show the official event took place Aug. 18-19 and Matt Jones said the nearby Ironman race took place Aug. 17. Records show the bureau paid $1,778 for airfare, but nothing for a hotel stay.

The only one of the four trips for which there was no question about dates was a trip to events in Paris and Rome last spring. The two events, between April 3 and April 11, bridged a weekend; the race took place in Paris on April 8, during the free weekend between the two events, Matt Jones said.

“Our travel policy allows staff on business travel to participate in personal activities at their own expense as long as they do not conflict with business purposes or cost the organization,” Matt Jones said in an email.

He said the CEO confers with meeting planners and media outlets during these trips. “These sales and media missions have a specific purpose tied to our strategic plan and annual performance metrics,” Matt Jones said in the email. “The missions are planned well in advance based on market demands … .”

But the arrangement poses a potential problem in the eyes of some officials.

“These are concerning to me, but if these trips are the way he presents it, then he pays all of his expenses to stay over,” said Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates, one of two council members on the 55-member board of VisitDallas.

Gates, who is supportive of VisitDallas, said the appearance of the bureau’s CEO running races while on city business — even if Jones is paying for that leg of the trip —  “is not good.”

Council member Scott Griggs, who has been critical of VisitDallas in the past, expressed similar reservations.

“There are many races available closer to Dallas and it looks like he is leveraging his position to further his career at a triathlete by running these races in these exotic locations,” Griggs said.

Jones describes himself in a magazine profile as an “avid endurance sports athlete.”

“I’ve completed 25 triathlons around the world and 17 full Ironman races and qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona in 2015,” Jones told a hospitality industry publication in 2017.

VisitDallas receives $30 million a year in public money, much of it generated through the city’s hotel tax.

Several members of the Dallas City Council want to do away with VisitDallas, after an audit released in early January found that the bureau had been operating with almost total independence, with no monitoring of its financial reports or even annual reviews of its tax filings. In addition, the audit found that VisitDallas provided murky data on hotel occupancy and other key measures of its performance.

Jones was found to have used VisitDallas money without accountability, purchasing $7,000 in what he said were gifts while failing to detail the spending. Jones was also found to have exceeded per diem limits on travel expenses.

In February the agency agreed to pay a third party to address some of the audit issues, although VisitDallas will remain under the oversight of the two same city departments, Convention and Operation Services and the Office of Economic Development, that allowed the abuses found in the audit.

Jones’ contract runs through 2020.

“It could very well be that this is coincidental, or he’s in a place that is having a race and he decides to enter,” said Dallas City Council member Rick Callahan, who served on the board of the agency in the ‘90s, before Jones arrived in 2003.

The records show that in the five years between December 2013 and December 2018, the convention bureau has spent about $395,600 – or about $80,000 per year average — on Jones’ travel, including $303,886 on airfare.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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