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.

Einhorn still has a beef with the bureau, though. Because he travels extensively for his business, his company's headquartered in Virginia with a branch office in Dallas. But not long ago, thanks to a new board policy, his dues were raised by $1,000 a year because he has no Houston office. Einhorn wants to keep doing business in Houston, but he's not about to lay out another thousand a year, in part, he said, because the bureau is not attracting a large enough number of citywide conventions that require his services.

"The only business we bid on are citywide conventions," said Einhorn, and the business from those "has gone down, no question." Executives in other citywide convention services, one of whom is laying off workers, confirm that business is flat. Jordy Tollett said that the city has booked no more than 39 citywide conventions a year since Webster arrived, and prospects for attracting more don't appear good. He keeps the George R. Brown profitable by attracting consumer shows such as gun shows, boat shows, sewing shows and others that pay rent, but don't attract large numbers of out-of-town visitors.

But being a good salesman, Webster knows how to convert a problem into an asset. The old bureau's problem, Webster said, was its obsession with getting conventions. "That's the only area this bureau was concentrating on when I got here," he said. "We've really taken a different approach. We've not only concentrated on citywide or big convention business ... we have concentrated on more medium-sized and smaller groups so that we can send leads to get bookings to every size of facility in Houston and not just the majors."

"The year before I got here," he added, "the number of room nights booked was around the 225,000 level. We jumped it to 331,000 the first year, 453,587 the next."

The numbers sound good, but some critics suggest they need to be looked at closely. It's true, as Webster said, that the bureau's confirmed bookings list for future meetings lists dozens of small meetings at hotels. For example, a booking filed on April 5 confirms 25 rooms for the sales meeting of Manhattan National Life at the Houston Airport Marriott two weeks later. A booking filed the same day confirms 15 rooms for four days for a training seminar at the Galleria Marriott. Dozens of these sales meetings, training seminars and other hotel gatherings go into the bureau's impressive tally of convention room gains over the past five years.

But Donald Ward, a former bureau employee who helped get the Republican convention for Houston, practically snorted at Webster's characterization of the bureau's efforts. In the past, said Ward, the bureau would have paid little attention to such small bookings; these, according to him, are what the 150 or so sales representatives of Houston's hotels should be booking. The GHCVB should be focusing on the big conventions only they can attract. Ward, who left the bureau three and a half years ago because of ill health, said that during his time at the bureau, any meeting of fewer than 50 rooms was not considered a piece of business that the bureau should take credit for.

In fact, it seems that Webster's statistics appear so robust because the bureau is taking credit for rooms booked by the city's hotels. Previous bureau administrations kept separate data on bookings that the bureau created and those done by "others " -- that is, by the city's hotels. Before Eddie Webster came, hotels jealously guarded information about their bookings, but buoyed by the improved business climate, and Webster's persuasive manner, hotels are now sharing their data and making the bureau look good. There is no longer any listing for bookings by "others" in the bureau's confirmation sheets.

The growth of such numbers was good to Webster for a very important reason: bonuses. Webster said that at the request of his board, he constructed a bonus system for the bureau's top salespeople based on room nights booked and business leads generated.

As for leads, the definition of what constituted a legitimate lead for a citywide convention got to be so fuzzy that the convention sales vice president Kathy Abrash wrote a memo in March 1993 to straighten things out. "A citywide lead," she wrote, "or a Bureau initiated bid only occurs when the client confirms that Houston is under serious consideration for specific dates and you are asked to hold these dates on a tentative basis."

But that didn't clarify the situation. Bonus-hungry salespeople wanting confirmed leads started reserving so many nebulous dates at the George R. Brown Convention Center that Jordy Tollett put an end to the practice and demanded written confirmation from meeting planners that Houston was being seriously considered for a convention.

The bureau's most implausible convention lead was circulated as a confirmed booking notice on November 20, 1995. It was for the Women's Settlement Conference, a meeting of women involved in breast implant lawsuits. The meeting, the first of its kind, was supposed to attract 245,000 visitors with 96,000 room nights, using the George R. Brown, the Astrodome or possibly Rice Stadium. If the meeting had happened as promoted, it would have been the biggest convention the city had ever seen. Instead, when the gathering finally took place, it required one meeting room in one hotel. Yet as a confirmed booking, the bigger, nonexistent convention could be included when figuring bureau bonuses.

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