by Hunter R. Slaton | August 01, 2008

Over the past two years, a number of long-serving executives at major convention and visitor bureaus around the country have retired (or will soon do so). M&C spoke to six of these CVB industry legends -- Bill Peeper of Orlando, Reint Reinders of San Diego, John Marks of San Francisco, Bob Imperata of Pittsburgh, Bob Bedell of Indianapolis and Spurgeon Richardson of Atlanta -- about how they got their start, changes on their watch, challenges their successors face and, of course, how their golf games have been improving.

Here, in their own words, is a lively picture of the CVB world over the past four decades and beyond.

Career beginnings

Bill PeeperBill Peeper: I started, as so many others did then, by chance. I was getting out of the Air Force after a tour in Vietnam, and they were offering “early outs” for people with less than a year left to transition back to civilian life.

I always was interested in chamber-type activities, so I went to the Dayton [Ohio] Chamber of Commerce to see if I could transition with them. I was soon offered a job to manage conventions, since the city was building a small convention center. Dayton was a great training ground.

Reint ReindersReint Reinders: I had a career before the CVB business, in the hotel business. I was with Marriott as a general manager for 21 years. I had joined the hotel company in 1969 and traveled across the country -- in fact, I went coast-to-coast five times, opening Marriott hotels along the way -- and then I landed in San Diego, opening the very first Marriott here in 1985, as general manager. And then I became the CVB president.

John MarksJohn Marks: I was born and raised in San Francisco and had been on the staff of the chamber of commerce there in the early 1970s. I migrated to Arizona in 1974 and ran the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce, which was a chamber and a convention and visitors bureau in those days. I served as director of tourism for the state of Arizona for a short period, and then as president of the Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau before returning home to San Francisco in 1987 in the same role.

Bob Imperata


Bob Imperata: I started [at the Pittsburgh CVB] on April Fool’s Day, 1968. Prior to that I had spent four years in the hotel industry selling for Sheraton, so combined I wind up with 44 years in marketing and the hospitality industry.


Bob BedellBob Bedell: I worked for Marriott for almost 15 years, starting when I graduated from college. Then I started my own business and had a consulting contract with Indianapolis in 1985. During that time, Bill McGowan, CEO at the Indianapolis CVB, convinced me to move there and work full-time for the bureau, and so I accepted the position in January ’86 as vice president of sales and marketing. I was there until 1993, went to St. Louis as president and CEO, and came back to Indianapolis as president and CEO in 2002.

Spurgeon RichardsonSpurgeon Richardson: I’ve been at the Atlanta CVB for 17 years. I came here in 1991, and that’s when I became president and CEO. But before that I had been involved with the bureau for about 12 or 13 years, being on the board, the executive committee, heading up the marketing committee and then as chairman. So I’ve had a long experience with them.

Changes in the industry

Peeper: When I first began in Dayton, our funding came from membership dues and support from the chamber of commerce. It was only four or five years later that the advent of room tax to be used for bureaus really started to take off, even though New York City had a room tax many years prior to that. There was a lot of excitement when Louisville [Ky.] imposed a room tax, as well as San Antonio -- and this really changed the way bureaus had to operate: Record keeping and accountability had to be better.

Reinders: One of the difficulties that every CVB has always had, even more so in the past 10 years, is they are joined at the hip with most municipalities, mainly because of their financial structure: CVBs receive funding from cities through the transient occupancy tax. That’s how it’s set up in most cities. And there’s been so much pressure on cities from a financial point of view, and every year you have to grovel to get your money from them. That’s been an ongoing situation, and I think it’s gotten worse as cities have gotten into more of a tight financial situation.

Marks: Competition was pretty defined in the ’70s and ’80s -- by that I mean it was pretty clear what cities could host what groups. That started changing by the ’90s, when it seemed that every city -- or, better yet, every off-ramp on the freeway -- wanted to build a convention center. So there was just an amazing proliferation of facilities built around the country, and not all were built for the right reasons. They were built for redevelopment efforts, for community pride -- maybe without proper due diligence that might have been required. So the level of competition just heightened.

Imperata: Technology has played a very, very important role in the changing of the industry and how we do business on a day-to-day basis. It moved us light years ahead of where we were, as far as being able to identify the client base and identify their needs. At the same time, the CVB industry has had to work at making sure that they do not lose the human touch, that they do not lose the relationship-building that’s necessary to generate business within that destination.

Bedell: When I first started at the Indianapolis CVB in 1986, it was very different from Marriott -- everything about Marriott was accountability, it was all about your business plan, executing your plan, your goals, results. When I first got involved in the CVB world it was a little “fluffier” than that -- probably not a great choice of words, but it just wasn’t as businesslike. Now it is, and just as it’s become more difficult in the private sector, it’s also become significantly more difficult in our industry, in our world.

Richardson: When I first came to the bureau in 1991, it was mostly sales calls. I was given marching orders to run this bureau like a business -- we had 80 employees, a big budget. The idea was to make sure you made the budget every year and to be as professional as you could be. I think one of the things that’s changed over the years is that successful bureaus have a much greater role with the city and state in advocacy issues like safety and new product.