Visitor Woes Spark Shifts For Bureau

Staff Reporter

Faced with a downturn in convention bookings and a shrinking budget, the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau is an organization with problems.

Lacking large hotels near the L.A. Convention Center to market to conventioneers, the bureau is banking on and even using as part of its sales pitch a proposed 1,200-room Staples Center hotel that is far from a sure thing and at best many years away. A squabble over a city subsidy is holding up the project.

"There are serious problems at the LACVB which need to be corrected," contends Westin Bonaventure Hotel general manager Brian Fitzgerald and a critic of the visitors bureau. "They have existed for years and nothing I have seen has addressed these problems."

The visitors bureau has been roundly criticized by some downtown hoteliers for the more than 30 canceled conventions over the past two years. Some dropped out because of the downturn in the tech industry. Others were booked because they believed the Staples Center hotel would be finished.

"We have to refocus our attention on obtaining maximum results," said George Rakis, a bureau member and general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center, a separate organization from the bureau.

Bureau officials believe they have at least part of an answer: They are changing the name of the organization and putting it through a major restructuring, one that they say has been in the works for three years.

Later this year, LACVB will be known as L.A. Inc., which mimicks the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau's name change three years ago to NYC & Company.

"I've always thought it was a good idea to change the name," said Linda Griego, managing general partner of Engine Co. No. 28, a downtown restaurant, and a recent board member. "No one could figure out if we were the convention bureau or the convention center. Even I couldn't always get that long name right."

The bureau also is launching a fund-raising effort to finance a multimillion-dollar branding campaign called L.A. NOW, to market the diverse region. And, it has slashed its board from more than 30 members to 15 and created several smaller advisory boards to address the various aspects of marketing L.A., internationally and nationally.

"We are changing to match the changes in our markets," said Michael Collins, the bureau's executive vice president.

Taking action

Three years ago the LACVB hired Andersen Consulting for $112,000 to devise a reorganization of the decades-old bureau. It wasn't until last year, however with tourism slumping and big conventions going elsewhere that steps were taken to implement the plan. That was about the same time the bureau was forced to reduce its annual budget by 17 percent, to $25 million, and lay off 13 employees following sharp dips in tourism after Sept. 11.

In recent years, L.A. had succeeded in luring top conventions to the city while rival locations such as Anaheim and San Diego were expanding their convention centers. It grabbed the brass ring when it got the Democratic National Convention. That year there were 29 conventions in L.A., contributing $175 million to the local economy. The number of conventions grew to 35 last year, contributing $123 million to the L.A. economy.

But the new facilities in Anaheim and San Diego are up and running and hurting L.A.'s business. Indeed, bookings have begun to decline. There are only 28 conventions scheduled for the downtown convention center in 2002. Next year, that dips to 16.

With most organizations booking their big national conventions at least three years in advance, the L.A. bureau needs to rev up its sales team and entice more conventions and tourists back to the area with or without a Staples Center hotel.

"There is no doubt that the No. 1 thing we want is more business in our hotels," said Javier Cano, general manager of the 1,004-room Los Angeles Airport Marriott hotel and a member of the convention bureau. "But the question is, how do we do that?"

Shaking up the board

One of the first recommendations by Andersen was to change the bureau's internal organization. Instead of having a large board, half of who often didn't show up to meetings, the board was downsized and five more-targeted advisory boards were created.

One advisory board, made up of 17 general managers from the area's largest hotels, focuses on ways to promote the area's attractions.

Another is working with the Los Angeles World Airports, which operates Los Angeles International and three other regional airports, to bring more international passenger and cargo flights to the local airports.

The sports and entertainment advisory board is concentrating on getting more sporting events and award shows.

The L.A. NOW advisory board is developing the L.A. brand as a cohesive image to overcome visitors' confusion over the vast urban sprawl and multitude of enclaves here.

"Los Angeles is so big and diverse. Universal Studios and the destination resorts don't have a lot in common with the downtown convention hotels," said John Stoddard, general manager of the downtown Wilshire Grand Hotel and an bureau member. "So we saw a need for some kind of branding of L.A."

But Griego says the problems go deeper. She believes LACVB executives have a hard time selling L.A. because they feel the city has inferior convention facilities compared to places like San Francisco. "If you are going to sell L.A. you have to love L.A.," she said. "I've never been convinced the convention bureau has ever bought into L.A. They sort of wish it were San Francisco, San Diego or Las Vegas."

In the past, the bureau's brochures have touted Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Malibu, but left out the core areas of Olvera Street, Little Tokyo and Koreatown. "Why are they selling what they are not?" she asked.

Initiating the branding program may take some time. Businesses that might benefit the most will be asked to contribute funds for an advertising campaign, which is expected to cost millions.

One of the most radical alterations, changing the bureau's name to L.A. Inc., won't be happening until after the fiscal year begins July 1. At that point, there is expected to be more funds available for printing new stationery, business cards and brochures.

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