Audit Takes Aim at Agency Promoting Dallas' Convention Center

Blistering audit questions current promotion for the Convention Center

A new private management contract is in the works for the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center at the same time as Dallas City Council members are digesting a scathing audit on the nonprofit agency that's been promoting conventions.

The firm Spectra, owned by NBC parent company Comcast, was recommended in a city council committee briefing Monday to take over operation of the city-owned convention center after a selection process.

City operation has run about $8 million a year short of revenue with hotel tax money covering the loss.

Spectra promised to reduce expenses and improve booking at the same time.

"We don't stop until it's fully booked 365 days a year, so that will be our focus, drive new revenue," Spectra vice president Peter Zingoni said. "We implement a lot of the resources and training we have as an organization to invest back in our employees to enhance that customer experience."

Spectra has already won a contract to run Dallas Fair Park and Zingoni said running both venues would provide opportunities to get the most out of each of them.

At the same time, Dallas City Council members are reviewing an audit of "VisitDallas" the convention and visitors agency that has been promoting the Convention Center and Dallas tourism.

The nonprofit agency has a $41 million budget, most of it from the city.

The audit found lax oversight by the city of VisitDallas spending. For instance, VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones, who receives a $700,000 annual salary, was found to have violated the agency's own rules on excessive lodging and transportation expenses.

VisitDallas responded with a statement that highlighted the agency's accomplishments to promote tourism.

"VisitDallas invests the private and public funds it receives for marketing and sales efforts to support the goals approved by our Board of Directors. Two Dallas City Council members and the Executive Director of Convention Event Services sit on the VisitDallas board who – and along with the entire board – provide oversight on all VisitDallas activities," the statement said.

Council members Monday said they plan a special meeting to focus on the audit issues soon, with the Spectra contract still set for city council approval on Feb. 13.

"I think there's an opportunity here to take care of two issues," councilman Scott Griggs said. "A great operator in the convention center, and now with this great new added capacity, VisitDallas seems a little bit redundant to me and I don't see why we are paying these outrageous salaries, and expensive luggage and so on."

Zingoni said if approved by the city, Spectra would focus on booking short notice events at the convention center and work with VisitDallas on long range convention planning.

Dallas released a statement on the VisitDallas audit on Tuesday:

Dallas benefits greatly from its tourism industry which brings millions of people to visit and enjoy our city as well as sustains jobs for thousands of workers.

The City of Dallas is fully committed to improving its monitoring and oversight of its contract with VisitDallas and increase assurances that valuable hotel and other tax revenues are being wisely invested in our economy.

We are working with VisitDallas to address the many important issues raised in the audit and began that process today with an initial meeting. We will update the City Council committee next month.

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