By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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What the audit didn't reveal was equally troubling. During the last five years, and with the blessings of the bureau's board of directors, Webster had taken expensive trips to Europe, Mexico and Hawaii with his wife, billing all their expenses to the GHCVB, including in one instance what appears to have been personal items from a Paris boutique. At bureau expense, he frequently flew to his old home of Birmingham to attend meetings of a professional organization that seems to generate little business for Houston, but which put him within comfortable driving distance of where his daughter went to college. No expense has been too small or too large for Webster to claim, from a beer at Captain Benny's to a sandwich at Otto's to a $400 dinner for four at the Palm. During his tenure, Webster spent liberally, spreading the wealth at Carrabba's, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, Anthony's, the Grotto and many other Houston restaurants. On a slow week, he spent $300 for expenses.
Of course, if Webster were to bring Houston plenty of money in the form of conventions and tourists, much of that could be justified. And Webster had plenty of statistics showing impressive growth in the Houston hotel industry, growth he was happy to take credit for. But according to some observers, Webster's data has to be viewed with suspicion. One point of contention is how much of that hotel growth was due to the efforts of the GHCVB and how much was due to the general improvement in the city's business climate since the early '90s. Professionals in Houston's convention industry have grumbled that rather than improve things, Webster destroyed a capable convention sales staff and that the business that matters, the large citywide conventions, has remained stagnant, with the city hosting no more than 35 to 39 major conventions a year for the last four years. And at least one major convention services company is laying off people because the bureau hasn't added any significant new convention business and none is on the horizon.
Two weeks ago, in his spacious corner office on the fourth floor of the GHCVB's headquarters on
Market Square, Eddie Webster said he welcomed a chance to tell what he has accomplished. At 51, Webster is an amiable Southern-style businessman who wears button-down shirts, single-breasted suits and large gold-rimmed glasses. A roll-top desk sat in the corner behind his big desk facing the door, and a black golf bag with an umbrella shaped like a golf club rested against the wall, a souvenir of the Shell Open.
In person, Eddie Webster is likable and persuasive, a salesman through and through. He is also, by all accounts, a devoted family man. Both those factors undoubtedly helped when he was being recruited to take over a troubled convention and visitors bureau in 1992. In 1989, then-mayor Kathy Whitmire fired the bureau's president, Don Vaughan, for making sexist comments, cut the bureau's staff and travel budgets and abolished the bureau's sports and film commissions, moves that her opponents used against Whitmire in her losing 1991 mayoral campaign. After Vaughan left the bureau, the next president lasted only a few months before being forced out as the result of charges of sexual harassment. For a time, the bureau was run by board officers.
All of that must have made Webster seem a breath of fresh air. Webster, for his part, says he was initially reluctant to take a job in Houston. He was recruited from the presidency of the Louisville, Kentucky, Convention and Visitors Bureau by then GHCVB chairman Marshall Tyndall, an executive with Texas Commerce Bank, and Jordy Tollett, director of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Tollett had met Webster at various trade shows and had been impressed by his manner. Married and the father of three children, Webster often talked of his career decisions in the context of what was best for his family, and hardly seemed destined to make the kinds of gaffes his predecessors had made. While Webster had never handled the kind of major convention business that Houston hoped to have, he seemed to be a perfect fit for the city: the consummate handshaker, greeter and easy Southern gentleman.
It wasn't a bad move for a small-town boy from Trustville, Alabama. After graduating from Auburn University, Webster had worked in Montgomery, Alabama's chamber of commerce before moving less than 100 miles north to spend 14 years at the convention and visitors bureau in Birmingham. After all that time in Birmingham, Webster says, he decided he wanted a "challenge," and took a job in Palm Springs, California, trying to build up a convention business in what was essentially a resort town. After three years in Palm Springs, he took the job in Louisville.
"When this job offer came to me, I was not interested," Webster said, but after a friend turned the job down and the bureau came back to him, he decided to give it a shot. After all, Houston might not be among the nation's top ten convention cities, but it's still a major market. With a major airport, international business centers and competitive convention facilities at the George R. Brown and Astrodome, Houston has strengths as a convention destination, though it still has a long way to go. The nation's top convention cities -- Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando -- drew 2.6 million to 3 million convention delegates in 1995; Houston drew 600,000. With no tourist attractions comparable to those in Orlando and Las Vegas, and few downtown hotel rooms, Houston has scant chance of entering the top three, but it could chase Phoenix, which, despite a summer climate that matches Houston's horror for horror, is tenth in the country with 1.1 million delegates.