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Citizens Advisory Committee: Chamber Not to Blame for Convention and Visitors Bureau Shortcomings

A lack of understanding has led the Santa Clara City Council to adopt its hostile position toward the Santa Clara Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), one Citizens Advisory Committee Member said.

“Nobody, especially on City Council, knows the purpose of the [CVB],” said Kevin Park. “[This] misunderstanding of purpose makes it easier to make big mistakes.”

Park expressed strong opposition to the Council putting its foot down with the CVB for what the Council saw as “irregularities” in its practices.

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In May, the Council vented its ire on the Chamber of Commerce, which manages the CVB — for what Mayor Lisa Gillmor called “major, major mishaps with public funds” — by revoking the Chamber’s $150,000 yearly management fee and shutting down CVB operations until an audit can be completed in September. Preliminary findings of the audit by TAP International uncovered what Gillmor and her allies categorized as “self-dealing and mismanagement.”

The CVB generates money by focusing on bringing events to the City that generate hotel stays. Conversely, the Convention Center concerns itself with filling its schedule. Park described this tug of war between macro and micro by saying the Convention Center and CVB are both “kind of doing the same thing,” drawing an analogy to steel. If the amount of steel for a war effort is finite, Park said, the more of it used to make bullets, the less available to make tanks.

Annette Manhart, vice president of convention sales, marketing and services for the CVB, said Convention Center bookings in the middle of the week often cause the CVB to miss out on longer events that generate hotel tax.

She said the Council’s expectations of the CVB have been “unrealistic” given the restraints under which it has been placed, specifically what she called a “terrible” lack of funding, manifesting in a reduction in sales people from seven to two and lack of incentives for those sales people.

Suds Jain, another Citizens Advisory Committee member and chair of the Planning Commission, said the two seem to be at “cross purposes.” However, he also acknowledged that measuring CVB success is important.

“We can’t just keep pouring money into CVB,” Jain said. “By what metric do we decide whether CVB needs more or less funding?”

Manhart said comparing the Santa Clara’s CVB to other CVBs in the area shows how it is ailing. For instance, not only is the base salary of sales people higher in San Jose, sales people in San Jose can earn up to 100 percent in incentives. The City Council, Manhart added, has “always wanted to break the CVB and the Chamber apart.”

Since Dan Fenton — the former San Jose Convention Center CEO who resigned among Grand Jury investigations and city audits — works for the company that is developing a plan for future Convention Center operations, Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc. (JLL), many said it was a foregone conclusion that the Council would opt for a model similar to Fenton’s Team San Jose despite what the committee sees as its obvious failings.

Harbir Bhatia, who is a member of the Cultural Commission, said “people have taken their eye off the ball.” The CVB should sell the City as a “larger packet of services,” she said. She characterized much of the infighting and politicized discourse as a “fight between the past and the future on the field of the present.”

Although the Council will not present the findings of the JLL audit until September, it delivered a letter to Chamber of Commerce businesses informing them that CVB services will stop until the Council can make an “informed decision.”

“If they understood how these businesses work together, they would have put a plan in place,” Park said, pointing to the Council jumping to conclusions before the audit’s completion. “The City spent thousands of dollars to advertise its incompetence.”

The Council’s outrage over so-called “self-dealing” by giving Chamber members discounts is hypocritical, Park said, especially since the Council holds meetings on Chamber property without paying to use the space. Further, he added, Council Member Debi Davis used to sell memberships for the Chamber and had availed herself to the 20 percent discount for Chamber members.

“There is no way they could have not known this,” he said. “A lot of things that should be residents’ purview have been taken over by the City Council. Over the last 10 years, we have allowed City Council to take more and more authority over the City … the City Council is clearly wrong about this.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Harbir Bhatia. 

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