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Council OKs reduced budget for Visit Austin

Friday, October 13, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Visit Austin, formerly known as the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, will no longer be paying for alcohol to entertain would-be Austin conventioneers with city Hotel Occupancy Tax collections. The group promised the mayor and City Council that in the future it would only use private funds for alcohol purchases.

In addition, Visit Austin will no longer be wooing clients with Lady Gaga tickets as they have in the past. Instead, they will only entertain with local Austin musicians.

Those are two of the promises Tom Noonan, Visit Austin’s president and CEO, made to Council in response to criticism of those marketing practices. Noonan sent a letter to the mayor and Council on Tuesday outlining the changes Visit Austin was preparing to make.

Council unanimously approved the Visit Austin budget Thursday on a motion by Council Member Leslie Pool, one of the major critics of the group’s spending. That operating budget, $14.9 million of which comes from tax money, is about $2 million less than what the visitors bureau had planned to spend in Fiscal Year 2017-18, according to Julie Hart, the group’s chief financial officer. Visit Austin will also have other funds from private sources.

As the Austin Monitor reported last month, Visit Austin and representatives of the hotel industry defended the expenses of wining and dining, describing them as standard costs of trying to woo out-of-town clients to hold their conventions in Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler, who is counting on an expansion of the Austin Convention Center as part of his “downtown puzzle,” said very little while Council was considering the item. He did point out that there were 55 people who had signed up to speak, but since the vast majority of them were there to support Visit Austin there was no need for them to weigh in.

After the vote, Adler told the Monitor he was pleased that Council members could work together to arrive at the level of consensus they had reached on the item, especially because it had been so contentious in the beginning. He added, “The tourism industry is important to the economy, so it’s important for us to proceed.”

In addition to the changes in how it pays for alcohol and the promise to showcase only Austin performers, Noonan’s letter to Council said Visit Austin would “welcome an in-depth financial and performance audit conducted through the City Auditor’s Office,” another piece of what Council and other critics have sought.

Visit Austin will also provide a $200,000 grant for convention and tourism marketing services to promote local small businesses. According to Council backup documents, a local organization, to be approved by Council, will administer the grant.

In his letter, Noonan also promised that Visit Austin would work with the city’s legal department, Council and city staff for “a complete review of the Visit Austin contract and its requirements.”

Council Member Alison Alter suggested that things would have gone more smoothly if there had been better communication between Council and the convention and tourism marketing organization earlier in the process. She expressed hope that the city and Visit Austin would continue to make progress in their communications.

In his letter to Council, Noonan announced that Visit Austin would soon be launching a Visit Austin Foundation to be funded through private revenues, “which will focus on workforce development, including scholarships, and building recognition for the music, travel and tourism industries locally.”

“We have had initial conversations with Austin Community College to provide education curriculum for our programs and will have a board of directors of nine community leaders that will be responsible for fundraising, curriculum development and growth of the foundation,” Noonan wrote.

Noonan also said that Visit Austin would work to find other funds to replace the planned reductions in the music office and film budgets.

Photo by Andy made available through a Creative Commons license.

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