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.

But that's not exactly accurate. While it's true that prior to the Republican penny the bureau lacked the tourism resources it now has, it has always had a tourism program in place. Steve Moore, Houston's tourism director in the late '80s, was so effective that in 1989 San Antonio, a tourist mecca compared to Houston, hired him as director of its convention and visitors bureau. Moore's successor, Tom Anderson, left the bureau to go to Continental Airlines' Latin American operation.

But these tourism salesmen were paid salaries in the $50,000 range, while Hall not only came on at $100,000, but was also given $8,400 in automobile expenses for his Jaguar sedan. And last year Hall was given a $19,000 bonus and spent $27,000 in expenses, often for trips to Europe.

If Hall was among the first new people in, Bob Nowak, a young college graduate who had put together a visitors' information center on a shoestring, was among the first to go. Nowak had pieced together a computerized events calendar and hired four part-time college students who, among them, spoke several foreign languages to staff the center. Nowak's staff had manned the phones during weekdays, answered questions and sent out information for a budget of around $65,000; once Nowak was gone, the visitors' information system was farmed out to VSI, a Florida-based company whose owner was a friend of Ed Hall, and a service that once cost the bureau about $5,000 a month now costs about $10,000 a month. Webster said the contract was bid competitively, and provided a list of three other bidders as proof, but workers at the bureau remember the deal not being so open, but rather being put together behind closed doors.

Now when callers dial (800) 4-HOUSTON, they talk to someone in Florida reading from a computer screen. If the caller wants printed information, his name and address are sent electronically to the Texas prison system, where inmates stuff and address the envelopes. Many bureaus keep such services local, assuring they have quality control and that the people answering the phones are knowledgeable about the city. Webster said VSI and the prisoners had done a good job, and that an information and reservation hotline can be carried out anywhere a phone bank can be installed.

Nowak wasn't the only established employee let go when Webster arrived. The office manager of 23 years was forced out, as was the director of finance and administration, who was making about $50,000 a year. To replace the latter, Webster hired Rhonda Smith from the city at $85,000 a year. A comptroller, a human resources person and other assistants were added, with the result that the bureau's administrative costs have grown considerably. When arguing its budget before the city, the bureau claimed that its administrative costs were 15.9 percent of its costs, which would put it in the middle of similar bureaus. But the city's auditors came up with administrative costs of 22.5 percent, higher than any city to which the bureau compared itself.

Webster made his most significant staff changes in the convention sales department. Several of its key people were either fired or pushed out, and within three months of taking over, Webster created the position of vice president of convention sales at a salary of $93,000 a year. To fill the post, he passed over salespeople within the bureau, and instead brought in Kathy Abrash, who had worked with him in Palm Springs. Linda Schoene, who was the bureau's leading producer and who had directed the convention sales effort for the bureau while earning around $50,000, left to go to work for the Astrodome.

Other key employees in the convention sales area were cleaned out. Among them was Nancy House, a director of convention services who had received outstanding reviews. She was fired in February 1994 and replaced by Sara McPhillips, a close friend of board officer Sandy Hulver. Joyce Joe, an 18-year veteran and director of housing who booked rooms for conventions, was also forced to resign, in September 1994.

Some convention business owners were disturbed by the fact that board member Hulver, who owned a convention services company, had hired the husband of new convention sales chief Kathy Abrash. The concern was that Hulver's company might end up with more than her fair share of the convention business, and since one of the reasons businesses pay annual membership fees of $385 to belong to the bureau is for business leads, nobody was eager to see a competitor gain an advantage. Richard Einhorn, president of Production Transport, a company that provides hotel shuttle services for conventions, grew upset about the arrangement and shared his concerns with ten other companies, urging them to unite and confront Webster about the issue. In an August 15, 1996 letter faxed to Larry Schkade, president of IDEAS, ETC. Inc., Einhorn wrote "that certain member companies of the bureau have been given an unfair advantage over the rest of us. This advantage seems to stem from the fact that the managing parties of these companies have extremely close personal ties to employees of the Houston Bureau."

The "member company" Einhorn was pointing the finger at was rather obviously that of GHCVB board member Hulver, and after rounding up supporters from other convention services companies, he obtained a meeting last September with Webster and confronted him with charges of favoritism. Webster fired McPhillips shortly thereafter, and Kathy Abrash resigned last December.

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