Hotel GMs Hurl Bitter Missives in Fight for Tourists

Staff Reporter

The gloves have been flying between general managers of L.A.'s two largest downtown hotels.

Mostly through e-mails, the feud involves John Stoddard, of the 900-room Wilshire Grand Hotel & Centre, and Brian Fitzgerald, of the 1,354-room Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites, the largest hotel in Los Angeles. The two have not spoken for at least two months.

Under any circumstance, such friction is unusual to see publicly play out in the hospitality industry. But the salvos come at an especially inopportune time, with the travel business getting whacked and many downtown hotels half empty.

Actually, they've been at it for some time going back almost three years, shortly after Fitzgerald, an imposing 6 foot 5 inches, arrived from Boston to take over the top position at the Bonaventure, owned by FIT Investment Corp., a family of Taiwanese investors headed by Peter Zen.

Basically, the feud comes down to this:

Fitzgerald says that the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, of which Stoddard is a board member, has been lax in getting new business. "It's not a personal thing with John," said Fitzgerald. "My goal is to find out what is happening in Los Angeles and with the bureau. We still don't have the answers."

Stoddard concedes there is a problem in getting new business, but he's tired of Fitzgerald's complaints. He also minimizes the personal nature of the feud, though he adds, "Yes, I am aggravated with the approach he has taken."

So aggravated that he recently fired off an email to Fitzgerald that gloated over his hotel being selected as corporate headquarters for the National Hockey League's All-Star game at Staples Center in early February. The NHL has selected 11 hotels, taking up 8,000 room nights from Jan. 20 to Feb. 3. The Bonaventure was not one of them.

Stoddard's message to Fitzgerald read: "Having problems filling your own hotel? Maybe if you had a sound sales policy of your own you wouldn't be in such tough shape. Do you find yourself not holding market share? I really feel sorry for you! I hope you understand that the sale policy at the Wilshire Grand is to capture all of your business Best of luck to you and your owner in '02!"

"I can't tell you how good it felt to push that button and send that email," Stoddard said.

Fitzgerald chuckles at the e-mail. He said he never bid for the NHL business because he wasn't able to meet the league's requirements for meeting and hotel rooms. Besides, he has other business in January, such as the International Model and Talent Agency convention, which has reserved 1,100 hotel rooms.

He says his hotel will be more than 60 percent full in January and February decent numbers considering that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, big downtown hotels were left with 30 percent occupancy rates.

Fitzgerald's criticism escalated last year when he noticed an extraordinary number of conventions booked by the visitor bureau had been canceled. He wanted to know why. "We don't know the reliability of the conventions, which affects our business," he said in an interview.

Indeed, over the past two years long before the Sept. 11 40 conventions booked for L.A. have bowed out of their commitment, confirmed Michael Collins, the bureau's executive vice president. "We have been punished by cancellations," Collins conceded.

Tech fallout

Some of those bookings came during the boom years of the late '90s. With a staggering economy, many organizations and businesses, especially in the tech industry, are now retooling their convention plans.

But the LACVB took Fitzgerald's criticism seriously. Last year it hired PKF Consulting, a hotel consulting firm, to compare the convention bureau's booking practices with those of 10 other convention and visitor bureaus.

PKF concluded that the L.A. procedures were consistent with those in Anaheim, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami. However, minor improvements could be made, such as getting signed letters of commitment from organizations booking conventions.

Most involved thought that Fitzgerald's criticisms would stop there, but they haven't.

Fitzgerald says the bureau booked business promising that a new 1,200-room convention headquarters hotel would be built near Staples Center and the Convention Center by 2004. But now the opening date for any new hotel is, at the earliest, 2005, which means that conventions are going elsewhere, such as Anaheim, which recently expanded its convention center and has 7,500 hotel rooms within walking distance.

San Francisco has 10,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of its Moscone Convention Center. San Diego recently expanded its convention center and has 3,500 hotel rooms nearby. Los Angeles has 650 rooms within walking distance of the downtown convention center.

"When Anaheim was under construction, we booked a lot of conventions," said Collins. "We had conventions that were anticipating we would find ourselves with additional hotel space nearby. But we are realizing that by 2004, the two new hotels we thought were going to be there won't be there."

Other managers respond

The cancellations prompted Uno Thimansson, general manager of the Figueroa Hotel in downtown, to e-mail to Bill Buckley, the LACVB's executive vice president of sales, saying that "our next sales meeting should be held at Forest Lawn."

Fitzgerald recently fired off a letter to Stoddard noting that no one has come up with a good answer as to why the number of conventions and hotel room nights being booked are declining after an all-time high in 2000.

"Why has the LACVB canceled more than 59 definite citywide groups over the past 3 years?" Fitzgerald wrote in October. "If we answer these questions, we can begin to fix the problem."

Meanwhile, hotel managers around Los Angeles want to get past all the squabbling and start working to get more convention and meeting business.

"Yes, there is a certain animosity between certain parties downtown," said Cormac O'Modhrain, general manager of the Park Hyatt Los Angeles at Century City. "But ultimately everyone just wants to fill their guest rooms."

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