On Tuesday, VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones came before city officials publicly for the first time since a scathing city audit against the organization he runs. That audit found, among other things, a dearth of data making accountability impossible, commingling of funds required by state law to be kept separate, and some weird compensation things traced to Jones himself, such as a loan that Jones admits was used outside the confines of organizational work.
The outcome: VisitDallas isn’t going anywhere, at least for now, despite ample concern about whether the nonprofit charged with attracting events to the city has been using its public funding appropriately. A motion by Councilman Philip Kingston to cut ties with the organization—it would’ve recommended to Council that the city terminate VisitDallas’ contract and directed the city manager to open up the bidding to a new vendor—failed. Only Kingston and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs voted in favor. Instead, the committee decided to bring the briefing in front of the full Council at a later date. Too, VisitDallas is to work with the city to implement more than a dozen solutions to problems raised by the audit between now and an update in May.
In other words, the committee is opting for an improvement plan. Not all are pleased.
“I do not see credibility in the plan to improve VD,” Kingston said.
Jones, who sheepishly deferred questions to his chair-elect after the meeting, wasn’t subjected to quite as much heat as you might’ve expected. As Griggs pointed out after the meeting, the long audit report and time constraints of the committee format are at least part-culprit for that. About an hour of the hour-and-a-half-long period was used up going through the most striking points of the audit as well as the city’s recommendations and VisitDallas’ official response. Those recommendations boiled down into two parts: improving oversight and monitoring over VisitDallas contracts and reporting and improving reliability and accountability of controls over VisitDallas’ performance measures and expenses. And then VisitDallas went, saying in many words that it would comply.
The recommendations stemmed from, among other revelations, the auditors’ findings that VisitDallas was mixing into a single account its two main sources of city revenue, money from the Hotel Occupancy Tax and via the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District. Respectively, those have fed an average of $15.6 million and $13.5 million to VisitDallas per year over the last five years. Commingling is against state law, and the organization has begun to keep the two separate. The audit also showed that it’s impossible to judge the job that VisitDallas is doing, because, well, they aren’t really tracking their results in any formal, comprehensive, audit-able way. (Here’s Tim’s run-through of some key results from when the audit was first revealed.) And there were odd expenses tied to Phillip Jones, like a high-dollar backpack put on VisitDallas’ tab.
Among the recommendations from the city are that the officials yearly take a “more in-depth review” of VisitDallas’ expenses and that VisitDallas presents annual committee briefings on its budget, activities, and performance goals. It also wants VisitDallas to develop clear procedures for tracking performance metrics, and then get those metrics independently validated.
Things did lean tense at a couple of points. It was Griggs who started off the questioning, asking Jones to confirm that only 23 of 53 events that VisitDallas had considered “city-wide” over a five-year period actually met the definition of 2,500 booked hotel stays.
Jones started down an explanation about AirBNB and VRBO obscuring the data. “We know they’re coming here because our hotel revenues have increased substantially. In the last five years, we’ve gone up 35 percent,” he said.
Griggs cut in. “We gave you a lot of time to talk and present your information. If you give very long answers, then I won’t be able to get to my questions and other people won’t be able to get to their questions,” he said.
Griggs brought up the organization’s suite at American Airlines, for which it pays $250,000 a year. He asked about how often the suite was used for VisitDallas staff and for members City Council. At the asking, a few Council members scuffled around, whispering to each other. Kingston said later that himself, Councilwoman Jennifer Gates, and Councilman Kevin Felder were comparing notes about whether they’d used the suite. Kingston says he has not.
Meanwhile, Jones maintained that Council uses it infrequently, and that staff use it to accompany customers and potential clients. After the meeting, VisitDallas Board Chair-elect Joyce Williams doubled down on that point. “As Phillip (Jones) has stated, very few times,” she said.
Later, on a phone call, Griggs expanded on his line of questioning. “My understanding is that they need to take people out to wine and dine them,” he said. “But there’s so many events there, there’s no one to wine and dine. So, the tickets become available to VisitDallas employees, VisitDallas board members, and Council members.” He said it spoke to the organization’s culture.
Those were the bulk of the fireworks. Councilman Rickey Callahan asked somewhat rhetorically whether VisitDallas’ reputation has been damaged. And then, answering his own question by saying it has—not by the audit itself but by coverage in the press and the questions of his colleagues—he asked Jones whether he thought it was beyond repair. Jones did not.
There was plenty of talk about the 55-person board tasked with providing oversight of VisitDallas. Some, like Griggs and Kingston, think that is too large to actually do anything. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson did not agree. And Gates, who is on the VisitDallas board, put the onus on the city. Their take seemed to be that VisitDallas can clean things up.
“I think there’s going to be changes in the agreement,” Gates said. “The city, we’ve got to do better monitoring. That’s the crux of this audit, that’ were not looking out for the best interests of the city with these business partners. And we’ve got to.”