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Updated: Visit Austin provides some data, withholds some

Thursday, May 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, now operating as Visit Austin, released to the Austin Monitor on Wednesday a list of its 50 highest-paid employees, by job title and salary, not by name, as well as a compilation of the convention business the group says the convention center has lost since 2015 because of lack of available space.

In addition, Tom Noonan, Visit Austin’s president and CEO, released a copy of his contract.

While the document about lost business opportunities gives a detailed accounting of the dates various conventions might have come to Austin as well as hotel room nights and the estimated economic impact lost, the compilation does not include the names of the conventions that decided not to choose Austin.

In addition, there is no information by which to identify which conventions might have rejected Austin or where those conventioneers might have decided to go instead of Austin. Therefore, it is impossible to know whether a lost bid opportunity for April 2019 was lost because there were already too many conventions in Austin on that date or because the conventioneers needed more space than would ever be available.

According to the list compiled by Visit Austin that tracked inquiries beginning January 1, 2015, the total number of conventions the city has lost or will lose through 2022 is 340. It estimates the lost economic impact at about $1.3 billion.

Austin activist Bill Bunch filed suit against Visit Austin on Monday alleging that the agency, which receives 83 percent of its funding from the Hotel Occupancy Tax, violated the Texas Public Information Act by refusing to disclose information about the lost conventions as well as the names and salaries of its 50 highest-paid employees. Bunch also complained about ACVB refusing to give him a copy of Noonan’s contract.

Bill Aleshire, Bunch’s attorney, reviewed the information provided to the Monitor and said, “The information received is incomplete. The lawsuit will continue until they provide all of the information Bill Bunch requested.”

“Giving a list of ‘lost conventions’ without identifying them, means we, the taxpayers and the press are just supposed to take their word for it,” he continued. “No, we want to truth-test what they are claiming is the basis for expanding the convention center.”

The lawsuit points out that ACVB “is leading the charge to have the Austin City Council increase (the Hotel Occupancy Tax) and buy land to expand the Austin Convention Center. The ACVB claims it has a report about convention opportunities that Austin lost out on supposedly because the Convention Center is too small. But ACVB refuses to publicly disclose this report.”

Visit Austin is withholding some of that information and has asked the Texas Attorney General for a ruling that would allow it to keep the information a secret, based on its assertion that releasing the information would give competitors an advantage. The Attorney General has 45 days to make a decision about whether that information must be released to the public.

Noonan sent the Monitor the following statement: “The information provided today clearly indicates that our city has lost out on a significant amount of business due to lack of space and/or availability at our convention center. The center is booked at maximum capacity – and forced to turn down nearly one-half of the requests for future bookings due to a lack of space or availability.”

Aleshire told the Monitor, “We’re not going to sit around and wait 45 days to see what the Attorney General decides. As soon as they answer the lawsuit, we’re going to set it for a hearing on mandamus. And I’d also like to point out to the Austin City Council that as long as they (ACVB) hide the ball, the Austin City Council shouldn’t act. It’s not a transparent process and it’s not a process that will actually hold ACVB accountable for how they use the money.”

Bunch claims that the convention center is currently losing $24 million a year. The Monitor could not reach him on Wednesday for a detailed analysis, but he did make that statement to the Travis County Commissioners Court, who are concerned that if Austin decides to build an expanded convention center, the county will lose out on any possibility of financing its own venue with Hotel Occupancy Tax money.

According to the information Visit Austin released Wednesday, the 2016 salary for Noonan was $334,616. That included a bonus of $34,616. His contract states that his salary was to increase by $10,000 on October 1, 2016, and that he would have a 3 percent salary increase every year he has a “positive performance evaluation.” He is also eligible to receive up to 30 percent of his base salary as a “performance incentive payment.”

The second-highest-paid Visit Austin employee is listed as the senior vice president for sales, who received a base salary of $176,298 and a bonus of $40,000 for 2016. That appears to be Steve Genovesi. Although Visit Austin is seeking to prevent the public release of the names of its employees with their salaries, those names are readily available on their website.

Noonan said the following concerning salaries, “In terms of salaries at Visit Austin, studies confirm we are very much in line with similar organizations across the country, including San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, among others. Out of 24 similar-sized competitors, 13 CVB presidents make a higher salary than I do. Furthermore, on a scale of 80 to 120 percent, with 100 being the average, our staff is paid 88 percent of what the average CVB employee is paid, and our vice presidents are paid 86 percent of what the average CVB vice president is paid.”

Update:A spokesperson for the Convention Center later told the Monitor:

“The $24M loss only represents the reported accounting net operating loss, which is an incomplete view of the financial picture of the convention operations. The Austin Convention Center Department has consistently communicated that its business model seeks to maximize hotel occupancy tax, not its own facility-generated revenue, to the benefit of all recipients of the hotel occupancy tax, as well as the Austin economy as a whole. Therefore, it is not appropriate to read through the City’s audited financial statements and stop half-way to determine the success or failure of the convention center. The hotel occupancy tax is reported in a separate section of ACCD’s financial statements, after the net operating loss subtotal.

“As was communicated in an extensive presentation to the Visitor Impact Task Force on April 11, 2017, the complete financial results reported in the City’s Fiscal Year Comprehensive Annual Financial Report show a positive change in the Convention Center’s net position of $11M.”

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Photo by John Tornow from Dallas, TX (Austin Convention Center) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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