Fast Eddie's Getaway

Insider deals. Outrageous perks. Exorbitant salaries. No wonder Eddie Webster's taken a permanent vacation from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The chief reason to attract conventions is financial: There is gold in those delegates, who spend their money in a city's hotels, restaurants and entertainment spots. Conventions brought $264 million into Houston last year, according to the bureau's figures. The bureau figures an average of 2.8 people for each hotel room, and each delegate is estimated to spend $858 for a visit of 3.8 days. So a citywide convention -- defined as one that occupies 1,000 hotel rooms, thus requiring two or three hotels for accommodations and shuttle buses for transport, as well as the use of either the George R. Brown Convention Center or the Astrodome complex -- packs a financial wallop of at least $2.4 million or more.

Drawing citywide conventions is one of the prime reasons for creating convention and visitors bureaus in the first place, and though the GHCVB wasn't necessarily stellar when Webster was invited to take it over, it nonetheless had enjoyed its share of successes. Like many convention and visitors bureaus around the country, the Houston bureau grew out of a chamber of commerce operation. It's primarily funded by a percentage of the tax on hotels and motels that the city collects and pays to the bureau in quarterly installments, a cut that amounted to $6.5 million last year. (The hotel/motel tax also funds city convention and entertainment facilities, as well as the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County.) Another $700,000 comes from business memberships and $1.1 million is raised from other private sources, giving the bureau an annual budget last year of $8.4 million.

A 40-member board of directors is responsible for governing the bureau, and save for representatives from the city and county, most of its members are selected from the business community. But the full board meets only once a quarter; the real work of the board is done monthly by the 15 members of the executive committee, including Mayor Lanier and County Judge Eckels.

In 1983, before the collapse of oil prices, voters approved a $105 million bond election to build the George R. Brown to replace the aging Albert Thomas Convention Center. The design of the center was guided by a panel of convention planners recruited by convention center administrator Jordy Tollett, who had started in the business at age 19, setting up chairs in the Astrodome for Judge Roy Hofheinz. When the Brown opened a few days early and under budget, Tollett could point to a sparkling new building with state-of-the-art planning. The docks were planned to drastically cut unloading and loading time. The floor, which could sustain the weight of a locomotive, was fully plumbed and wired, enabling exhibitors to set up any sort of exhibition in nearly any configuration. It was a meeting planners' dream, and hundreds of them flew to town to check it out for new conventions and trade shows.

But some of the meeting planners had a major reservation: They would only commit their conventions if a 1,000-room "headquarters" hotel were built across the street from the George R. Brown. Unfortunately, during the oil bust, downtown had lost 4,500 hotel rooms, and hotel chains were reluctant to build anything new.

In the midst of these problems, the bureau -- undoubtedly aided by being in the home city of then-President Bush -- scored one of its greatest coups, snatching the 1992 Republican National Convention away from San Diego. To do so, Houston put up $10 million worth of goodies, funded in part by a one-cent increase in the city's hotel/motel tax that came to be referred to as the "Republican penny." This was the bureau Eddie Webster inherited: an organization suddenly flush with money thanks to a new tax and flush, for the first time in years, with a sense of its own capabilities. Despite all its problems, the GHCVB had collared one of the biggest conventions in the country and almost doubled the amount of hotel/motel tax revenue it would receive after the convention was over. Prior to the Republican penny, hotel/motel tax revenues to the bureau were around $3.6 million annually; now they're closer to $6.5 million.

The bureau had weathered its storms, and its veteran employees might have reasonably expected good times ahead with a new director. Instead, a lot of them would soon be rewarded with pink slips.

"We tried to save as many folks as we could," Webster said in his office two weeks ago, "but during those first two years, we had some people that left, that took other jobs. And I think we improved the morale and now have a pretty solid team effort here on staff."

Undoubtedly, Webster improved the morale of the new people he hired, if only because he used the bureau's newly rich circumstances to bump salaries well above what they had been in the past. Those let go, though, were considerably less sanguine. During the last five years, 35 people have left, Webster said, while the staff has grown from 52 to 62 employees.

One of Webster's first major changes was to hire someone to direct the bureau's tourism effort. Within six months, he had brought in an old friend from Birmingham, Ed Hall, at a salary of $100,000. Birmingham is hardly an international tourist town, but Hall, Webster said, rose to the occasion. "When we brought him in here," Webster added, "he pretty much started at zero, especially on the international basis."

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