Bonaventure Out Of LACVB After Dues Go Unpaid

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

L.A.'s largest hotel, the Westin Bonaventure, has been thrown out of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau after its owner refused to pay $58,775 in back membership dues for the last year and a half.

Peter Zen, who has repeatedly criticized the bureau for not bringing more conventions to town, said he withheld the money because the LACVB didn't bring him any business during that period.

Bureau executives said it marked the first time they had to expel a member and they were hoping that time would resolve the problem. "The last thing we wanted to do was pull the plug on them," said Alan Rothenberg, the bureau's chairman. "But at one point we just threw up our hands in exasperation."

Expulsion means that the Bonaventure will not receive referrals for meeting and convention business that the bureau attracts the main benefit of being an LACVB member but not considered that critical for the Bonaventure because it is already well known in hotel and convention circles.

The bureau is now in the precarious position of trying to sell Los Angeles as a convention site without the cooperation of the city's de facto convention hotel. Meeting and convention planners tend to look for harmony among a city's hotels before they commit to booking a convention.

Bureau officials conceded that they would still refer business to the Bonaventure if it meant attracting or holding onto a big convention. Such an overture could be borne out of desperation; only 16 citywide conventions are booked for the L.A. Convention Center this year, compared with 32 for 2002.

Bureau executives maintain they face increasing pressure from other cities with better convention and hotel facilities, such as San Diego, Anaheim, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

"The thousand plus room inventory of the Bonaventure Hotel is still important," said Bill Buckley, the bureau's executive vice president of sales. "If a group or convention needs that inventory, we would pass that business on if a member hotel couldn't accommodate them."

Slim bookings

Zen said he was unfazed by the bureau's action. "The bureau hasn't booked any conventions in the last 18 months," complained Zen, noting that his hotel has been less than 50 percent occupied during the past year, barely enough to break even.

"All we've had are (convention) cancellations," he said. "So what's the big deal? Until such a time when there is a change of management with accountability and a board that can perform oversight duties, I don't see any reason why we would want to be a member."

Zen blames the bureau's management for not being aggressive enough and he places the heaviest burden on George Kirkland, who has been executive director since 1990. Zen has urged Mayor James Hahn to put pressure on the LACVB board to get rid of Kirkland.

The bureau's action against the Bonaventure comes at the behest of several L.A. hotel executives who are members of the bureau and compete with the 1,300-room hotel for business. The bureau, whose annual $23 million budget is supported by membership dues and hotel taxes collected in L.A. County, was formed to bring more tourists to the Los Angeles area and fill hotels with meetings and convention business.

"Why should they have an unfair advantage when I pay my dues and they don't?" asked John Stoddard, general manager of the 900-room Wilshire Grand Hotel, the second largest hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

After pressure from other hotel members, who pay as much as $30,000 a year in dues for the bureau to give them leads on meeting and convention business, the Bonaventure's membership was suspended in early December.

Zen said he would not be paying his dues until things change.

Some hotel managers believe that the decision to throw out the Bonaventure had been stalled because Kirkland was afraid of angering Hahn, who is said to respect Zen's advice. "Some of us felt the bureau was dragging its feet because it was concerned about upsetting the mayor's office," Stoddard said.

Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook said the mayor's office was unaware of the Bonaventure being behind on its membership dues. "I don't think we're in a position to comment on George Kirkland's thinking on this matter or Peter Zen's possible reaction to anything that might happen," he said.

Looking for peace

Bureau executives said they were hoping to resolve the situation.

"This is not something we were eager to do," said Michael Collins, the bureau's executive vice president. "We had hoped that time would heal the problem. But in fact it didn't. It became more apparent to the hotels paying their dues that this was a fairness issue."

The Bonaventure's membership status was addressed at a November meeting between Kirkland and downtown hotel managers. On Dec. 4, Kirkland sent a letter to Brian Fitzgerald, general manager of the Bonaventure, informing him that the bureau was suspending the hotel's membership for unpaid dues.

The hotel and Zen have not communicated with the bureau since the letter was sent.

Zen, who last year was appointed by Hahn to be on the Los Angeles Convention Center Commission, has been fighting to maintain his hotel's dominance in the L.A. hotel market. He has been an outspoken critic of the city using funds to help build a 1,200-room convention hotel near the L.A. Convention Center believing that any government subsidies for a hotel would create an unfair advantage to privately owned hotels.

The bureau is firmly behind a new convention center hotel, saying that it is needed to attract more conventions whose attendees don't want to take shuttle buses from the convention center to the knot of downtown hotels blocks away.

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