Looking back, it was a modest request. The state of Louisiana wanted to boost its tourism. To do that, argued Phillip J. Jones, the state needed to pour another $5 million into advertising, and the tourists would come.
This was Jones in an earlier incarnation, as secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.
“We cannot compete with destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando when we are being outspent 13-to-1,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted Jones as saying in October 2001. The state agreed, and ended up doling out the money.
Jump to 2009, when the stakes are much higher. Today, Jones is beating the drum for a $356 million hotel and conference space for Dallas’ convention center. This time, Jones is wearing the hat of president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is mainly funded from hotel occupancy taxes. And, once again, he’s battling the likes of Vegas, Orlando, and other cities for business.
Even if Jones and other proponents get the convention center hotel, or when they get it—a citywide referendum on the project is scheduled for May 9—the push for more and more convention infrastructure will continue, Jones says. Soon to follow: a drive to expand the convention center by another 300,000 square feet, to hit the magic figure of 1 million contiguous square feet, which is what some event planners say they need to hold their events. This, seven years after the city ponied up $125 million for a 525,000-square-foot renovation/expansion of the existing center.
Clearly, Phillip Jones subscribes, and always has, to the “Build It And They Will Come” theory.
The question facing Dallas—whether it knows it yet or not—is whether physical improvements alone can salvage its convention and business-meeting industry, or whether it has a very-expensive personnel problem in the person of Jones, a squeaky-clean former tourism director who, critics say, has been largely ineffective at building convention business here. The question is important because conventions historically have meant big business in business-oriented Dallas, where the industry’s economic impact has been estimated at $2.6 billion annually and where nearly 40,000 people were directly employed by the hospitality industry in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available.
Dallas restaurateur Al Biernat is one of the most passionate critics of Jones, but he’s not alone. One local convention-industry insider, for example, ventures that “half the local convention industry” believes Jones isn’t cut out for the job. When contacted, however, few of the purported skeptics would go on the record for this article, likely for fear of giving Dallas “bad press,” further damaging its convention prospects.
Biernat is another story. He is an unapologetic champion of former DCVB director Dave Whitney, who resigned following news accounts of Whitney’s executives expensing visits to topless clubs, visits the bureau claimed were requested by clients.
There were other issues—like Whitney allegedly steering some of the bureau’s legal business to his wife’s law firm, and red ink in the bureau’s budget. It’s the strip-club allegations, though, that linger in the lore of what killed the Old Guard at the DCVB.
But Biernat, and others in his camp, contend that the city threw the strippers out with the bathwater when it forced Whitney from the bureau in January of 2003.
Inside his popular Oak Lawn eatery one recent weekday, Biernat gestures toward a nearby table as he describes life under Dave Whitney, when groups of VIPs scouting locations would roll into the restaurant. He remembers getting calls from the DCVB in advance, telling him which particular wine and cigars were preferred by the group.
The groups would subtly arrive and Biernat would treat them like kings and queens, plying them with $100 and $200 bottles of wine, the rarest of stogies. Business would inevitably follow, when the groups booked their conventions in Dallas. Biernat says he hasn’t gotten any more such calls from the DCVB since Whitney left. And, he observes, convention business has dropped post-Whitney citywide.
DCVB numbers confirm Biernat’s contention: The number of hotel room nights occupied by conventioneers in Dallas has decreased by 25 percent since 2002.
But where Biernat’s argument may fall short is in the fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation. In other words, there’s no hard evidence that Jones’ hiring has been bad for convention business here; by the same token, there’s no tangible proof yet—though the bureau says future bookings have taken off—that Jones’ hiring has brought business in.
That’s because convention planners book their meetings five to 10 years in advance, and Jones started his job in Dallas in earnest at the end of November 2003, a little more than five years ago.
In addition, there’s no telling how much other factors—a souring economy, the advent of Web conferences, and moves other convention bureaus have made—are changing the convention picture for Dallas and other cities, even as you read these words.
Barbecue And Tequila
My first observation of Dallas as a convention destination came in 1984. I was a senior at Whitmer High School (in Toledo, Ohio), and had somehow latched onto a group of Bowling Green State University students who were working for the Associated Press. We were supposed to deliver film and photos to photographers who were covering the Republican National Convention.
I remember that at the end of our shift each night, we left the bright convention center, with all its loud delegates and their big hair, to walk back through blocks of dark desolation to a two-story, flea-bag motel. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I recall that there was a Jack in the Box nearby, and they refused to serve us because it was so late that only the drive-thru was open, and we didn’t have a car.
The AP threw a party when the convention was over. We rode in a green, wood-paneled station wagon to a ranch on the outskirts of urban Dallas-Fort Worth (I have no idea where); there, we stuffed ourselves with barbecue, beans, ice cream, and beer. It was also there that I learned of the wonder of a concoction called a “Texas prairie fire” (a shot of tequila with lime juice and two or three dashes of Tabasco). The heady meal caused a woman in our group to vomit while the station wagon was still moving. She stuck her head out of the window and added another stripe to the wood paneling.
Now, that was a Texas barbecue.
That was before the widespread use of ATM machines and the Internet and before most college kids had credit cards. Dallas the TV show was still on the air, and hadn’t yet jumped the shark. And Dallas, Texas, was the place to hold events.
By 2002, Dave Whitney was already sending verbal warning flares about Dallas’ decline as a convention destination. He lamented to the Dallas Morning News that among its other shortcomings, Dallas’ entertainment venues, restaurants, and hotels were too spread out for conventioneers. He named the construction of a hotel within easy walking distance of the convention center as a priority to compete with other cities.
The landscape was much simpler for Dallas my senior year. I suppose it was simpler for me, too. “In ’84, Orlando wasn’t a speck on the map,” Whitney recalls. “Back then, Vegas was a gaming destination. … Anaheim was just starting to show its face. San Diego just got started out.”
While Dallas dithered in the ’80s and ’90s, the cities of Atlanta, Denver, San Diego, Orlando, and Las Vegas forged ahead in the race for citywide conventions, building convention halls, shopping districts, and hotels, all within walking distance of each other.
In the proper context, the Dave Whitney of 2002 sounds a lot like the Phillip Jones of 2009. Except when it comes to the whole topless entertainment thing, which, Whitney says, has by now pretty much gone by the wayside for all convention professionals.
“I honestly believe that the scrutiny of how bureaus spend their money has increased, and everyone is keenly aware” of the new guidelines, says Whitney, who now serves as a consultant in the convention industry, as president of the hospitality division for Dallas-based New Media Gateway Inc.
Asked to speak to Jones’ effectiveness on the job, Whitney declined to comment. But he did say that “building relationships” is a key to maintaining and growing new convention business. The implication: Jones is not good at building those relationships.
In a nutshell, one industry insider contends, Jones “took the focus off conventions to focus on tourism.”
Affordability A Plus
You might compare the convention industry to a high-school marching band, a sorority, or any other insular group. Everyone knows everyone. When I called Terri Hardin, editor-in-chief of MeetingNews, a New York-based trade publication, to get her impressions of Dallas’ convention efforts, she not only immediately recognized Jones’ name, she told me she knows him.
Turns out they share similar Louisiana roots—she’s from Shreveport, while he lived in Florien, a small town about 95 miles south of there. Hardin says Jones’ energetic manner—maybe it’s because he’s a dedicated Ironman triathlete—translates easily into charisma. The very nature of being a tourism director and a convention bureau chief require political skills, and Jones has them, she says.
But Hardin says Dallas needs a convention center hotel to compete and remain competitive in getting more convention business.
Not surprisingly, the DCVB agrees. It contends that between 2003 and 2007, the city lost 68 meetings—and $300 million in business—because it didn’t have a convention center hotel. If They Build It, the bureau promises, groups like the American Heart Association, the Newspaper Publishers Association of America, and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons will come and generate more than 1.7 million additional room nights over 15 years.
Says Hardin: “If you’ve got attendees coming in by plane, and they’re there for a limited time, they don’t want to spend time in traffic” getting to the convention.
Meeting-industry insiders like Hardin say that no matter how swell a guy like Jones can treat you, or how much he or his staff can wine or dine you, a convention planner’s decision to site an event mostly boils down to mundane things like available, affordable, and convenient hotel rooms; sufficient square footage available in convention and meeting halls; and whatever deals cities/convention bureaus are willing to cut with groups.
A survey by the Atlanta-based PKF Hospitality Research consulting firm shows a relationship with a convention bureau is far less important than access to airports or locating the event within an easy drive. In addition, convention planners prize having meetings near places to eat, drink, and be merry over their relationships with convention bureaus.
The PKF research also shows that convention planners can be as flighty as sorority sisters and high-school flag twirlers as well. In light of the economic downturn, PKF says, planners are now looking for cities for their affordability, and canceling high-end events at expensive destinations. And the affordability thing, it turns out, fits Dallas to a T, according to Vicki Hawarden, vice president of knowledge management and events at Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International.
So, if more groups start rolling into Dallas because of its relative affordability, would that make Jones a genius?
‘Not As Appealing’
Phillip Jones was still living in Louisiana in 2002 when Dallas shot its foot in front of nearly 30,000 orthopaedic surgeons and their support staff. It happened during the annual gathering of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
“The meeting didn’t meet our attendance expectation,” the group’s CEO, Karen Hackett, tells me in a phone interview. “There could have been a number of explanations for that, but we’re always looking at the cities and, in 2002, we didn’t hit our numbers.”
Ah, the interminable politeness of the convention community.
In a ham-fisted effort to reach Hackett, I accidentally contacted Camille Petrick at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, who was much more forthcoming about Dallas’ image.
“I think it’s just not as appealing as other cities,” Petrick said, referring to Dallas. “I remember when I was there, it would shut down at night. Whereas if you’re somewhere else, like San Diego, Chicago, Tampa, or other cities, you can go anywhere you want to go in the evening, and there’s plenty going on.”
Not to mention that Dallas—unlike Tampa and San Diego—is located nowhere near a beach, unless you count the banks of the Trinity River.
Petrick said she draws her impressions based on what she remembers of Dallas when she was here in 1992, as well as what she’s been hearing lately from other convention planners.
Petrick’s sports-medicine annual meeting draws 1,500 people at most—small potatoes compared to groups like the American Heart Association, which boasts 23,000 attendees. But at least she’s telling me what she and other convention planners are thinking. She also told me no one from Dallas has tried to sweet-talk her into recommending Dallas as a convention site, either.
‘We’re Having Success’
It’s perceptions like that that Jones says he’s trying to change.
To do so, he and his staff at the DCVB have been making a big push toward the decision-makers to show them Dallas and its promise. They’re inviting meeting planners to come and take a look at Victory Park, Uptown, and parts of downtown Dallas.
“We’ve seen a 1,000 percent increase in meeting planners coming to Dallas in the last three years,” Jones says. “That’s one of the strategies.”
The convention bureau has dipped into its cash reserves for millions of dollars to lavish the planners with fancy meals—not at Al Biernat’s, but at Stephan Pyles and other restaurants, Jones says.
The main struggle, he adds, is trying to convince out-of-towners that Dallas has changed since the 1990s, and that the place is worth bringing a group to again.
“I did an interview in Germany [recently] and they asked me how is JR” [Ewing, of the Dallas TV show], Jones says. “We’re having success. The New York Times named Dallas 17th out of 44 destinations to visit in 2009.”
Then again, the Times also put Beirut and Buffalo on that list.
Staying On Message
Phillip Jones, 47, spent his youth on the road, moving from Trinidad, to Norway, and to Holland while his father worked in the oil industry. His family settled in Florien, La., (pop. 692 in 2000) when Jones was 15. Jones, a Louisiana State University grad, got his big break when he went to work for the late Ron Brown, President Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary, organizing the first White House Conference on Travel and Tourism.
After Brown died in a plane crash, Jones got a call from then-Louisiana Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, for whom he goosed tourism to new heights. That’s what caught the attention of Dallas leaders, who were looking for an out-of-the-box kind of executive to replace Whitney.
“He rose to the top as someone who is high-energy, who is tough and is smart and had no preconceptions of how to do it,” says Pete Kline, former CEO of Bristol Hotels & Resorts, who chaired the committee that helped pick Jones to run the bureau. “I think he’s completely redesigned how all CVBs operate.”
Bureaus used to parse out their marketing money to their separate tourism, convention, and other departments, Kline says. It was Jones, he says, who said the marketing money all must be targeted to a single message. And Jones, Kline and others say, never met an out-of-town journalist he didn’t like: Jones is constantly seeking out ways to land interviews that multiply marketing efforts. Jones is pushing the bureau to tell all kinds of Dallas dreams—be they Fort Worth’s stockyards, Arlington’s stadiums, or Dallas’ shopping/arts scenes—to convention groups.
The Dallas bureau says the effort is paying off; last year 1.2 million future room nights were reserved, more than ever before.
For all that, Jones’ success or failure remains a question mark. The dwindling number of conventions in Dallas doesn’t lie. Critics like Al Biernat are losing their patience, wondering if Dallas should have hired an experienced convention specialist—rather than one whose expertise was in tourism—to replace Whitney in 2003.
“Whatever he’s doing isn’t working,” Biernat says of Jones. “I’m just saying, if it’s not working, let’s figure out what will work.”
In the end, whether or not Biernat believes in Jones doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether Jones and his staff can talk people like Camille Petrick into coming back to Dallas, and bringing her sports-medicine co-workers with her.
“I think if all the other things fall into place, and you say these hotels are great and the convention center is great and the air [transportation] is good … then I’d be more likely to take the plunge,” Petrick says.
What will truly be telling: If They Build It—the convention-center hotel—and They (the conventioneers) Still Don’t Come. Then I suspect the anonymous legion of Phillip Jones skeptics would line up to roast Jones on a spit. That would be a barbecue.