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.

With no third-party checks on hotel rooms actually booked, and a system that rewarded leads rather than closings, the GHCVB sales staff received generous bonuses last year, ranging from a low of $3,240 to $14,000 and $20,000. All told, the bureau paid out $358,423 in bonuses in fiscal year 1995-96, including more than $900 for a mailroom clerk.

While emphasizing small meeting bookings -- real or imagined -- Webster said he has also made another major change in the GHCVB: He has boosted Houston's tourism trade.

The emphasis, Webster said, is "first and foremost Mexico, Central and South America, and secondarily, but a close second, is Europe. Europe is the market that the bureau and the city never concentrated on. And because of the nonstop flights that we have, it's a natural....

"Not to oversimplify it, but it is really pretty simple. We weren't packaging Europe, and Europeans travel in packages ... and our packages weren't on the shelf there."

So both Webster and vice president for tourism Ed Hall have been going to Europe at least a couple of times a year, Webster taking his wife, Hall flying alone. While the tourism talk certainly rationalizes European travel for the bureau's top people, Europe is hardly a close second for Houston travel, and the emphasis on it has, by Webster's own admission, produced only a modest number of room bookings. Something like 80 percent of Houston's international travel market is from Latin America, not Europe, and more is coming, with or without the help of the bureau. Continental Airlines is clearing out terminal space to prepare the way for more direct flights to South and Central America. But neither Webster nor Hall has expensed trips for travel anywhere south of the border other than Mexico.

In fact, last month, when Continental Airlines hosted the consul generals of eight Latin American countries to announce Spanish signage throughout Bush Intercontinental Airport and a push for new routes and tourism between Houston and the countries, neither Webster nor Hall was present, leaving some of the city's Latin American trade advocates wondering whether Webster was taking their business for granted or just preferred spending time in Europe.

As a board member of two professional organizations, the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus and the Professional Conference Managers Association, Webster has traveled extensively for other reasons as well. The IACVB, which consists of convention and visitors bureau managers such as Webster, holds meetings several times a year, to which Webster has traveled, staying at first-class hotels and entertaining at restaurants. But who was he entertaining but other executives like himself? The real work of a convention salesman is meeting professional meeting planners in New York and Washington, and cutting good deals on room rates, shuttle buses and other convention services.

Webster also serves on the education foundation of the PCMA, which is headquartered in Birmingham and run by an old friend, Roy Evans. The foundation is interested in improving the education of professional hotel managers and conference planners, and Webster has seen to it that the GHCVB has donated money to the foundation, in the amount of $13,000 over the last five years. Many other bureaus and hotels contribute to the foundation, Webster said, "which is one of the most successful foundations in the hospitality industry."

Webster's preferred mode of travel to Birmingham and for some other trips wasn't Houston's major air carrier, Continental, but Delta. Although Continental provides the bureau with free ticket vouchers for its use, during the last four years Webster has spent more than $15,000 on Delta tickets, most of them first class, to domestic destinations such as Palm Springs, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Memphis -- all cities served by Continental. In August 1994, for example, Webster charged $5,516 worth of tickets to take him, his wife and then-GHCVB board chairman Milton Scott and his wife to a meeting of the American Society of Association Executives in Washington, D.C. Though there's no question that the ASAE meeting, which brings together meeting planners from all over the country, is an important one, there's also no question that Webster and his party could have flown free on Continental. Except maybe they couldn't have flown first class; the Continental vouchers are good for coach and can be upgraded to business class if seats are available.

In defense of his practice, Webster said that Delta is a corporate member of the bureau and deserved some support, and that he occasionally bought tickets from Continental as well. But former GHCVB executive Donald Ward said that he used the Continental vouchers without a hitch for flights all over the country and seldom had to buy a ticket.

Such discretionary purchases seemed common practice; perhaps the reason they weren't noticed was, as the city's audit pointed out, some members of the board of directors who should have been keeping an eye on Webster at times profited from their connection to the GHCVB. The audit noted that the bureau had signed a $400,000 note with Texas Commerce Bank while TCB executive Marshall Tyndall was serving as a board member. While the note may have been a good deal for the bureau, and the city auditor pointed out that the practice didn't necessarily violate the bureau's contract, it did create an impression of one hand washing the other.

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