July 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Newsline newsline.gif (8042 bytes)WITH BUREAUS IN CLEVELAND AND ELSEWHERE UNDER FIRE, INSIDERS SAY IGNORANCE IS TO BLAME

CVBs Suffer Problem of Perception

Michael Gehrisch
Michael Gehrisch Recent scrutiny of the Greater Cleveland Convention & Visitors Bureau has raised questions about whether the public should be educated about how cities sell themselves.

In May, Cleveland news outlets obtained expense reports by the CVB that showed spending on lavish meals, sports outings and a $4,000 weight-loss program for the executive vice president. CVB president Dave Nolan took a leave of absence due to the fallout, and the bureau enlisted an independent accounting firm to review its expenses.

For now, the bureau is examining its T&E policies and is not scheduling much travel, said interim president Dennis Roche. Cleveland is one of several cities on the defensive over CVB spending in recent years; Baltimore, Dallas and Los Angeles are among those that have faced similar scrutiny.

A challenging economic environment coupled with various corporate scandals are partly to blame for all this attention, according to Michael Gehrisch, president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus. “The atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion spills over into our business,” he said.

The real problem, however, might be that people don’t understand how selling a city works. While CVBs are largely supported by public monies, they are not government agencies and therefore are allowed to keep their dealings private, explained Gehrisch, who noted that bureau executives must develop relationships with clients a costly process that does not appear on annual reports.

People don’t trust what they can’t see, added Rick Antonson, elected chair of IACVB. “A high percentage of what a bureau does to market a destination happens outside of the destination,” he said. “The locals almost never see it.”

The solution, said Cleveland’s Roche, is to apprise the public and media about spending guidelines and review the T&E policy internally to ensure adherence. Otherwise, “you dig into details where you sacrifice the overall interaction,” said Roche. “The community is not served when it limits its own promotion.”

• JONATHAN VATNER

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