February 15, 2006

On Feb. 9, the San Diego City Attorney filed a lawsuit against more than a dozen online travel companies, including Orbitz, Expedia and Hotels.com, demanding that they pay more than $30 million in transient occupancy taxes collected over the past five years. The suit, which follows similar suits filed in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, alleges that the companies charge guests a tax based on the retail price but remit taxes based on the wholesale rate. The online companies, represented by the Interactive Travel Services Association, have long claimed that they do not resell rooms at all, that they remit the amount of tax that the hotels ask for, and that any profit they make on the sale is just a service fee and is already taxed as such.

After a four-year, $150 million effort, the Transportation Security Administration last week mothballed the Secure Flight program. With Secure Flight, the government, instead of the airlines, would have checked names of domestic airline passengers against terrorist watch lists. However, the program had long been under fire from data privacy advocates, civil libertarians and the Government Accountability Office, which last week said Secure Flight, "has been ad hoc, resulting in project activities being conducted out of sequence, requirements not being fully defined and documentation containing contradictory information or omissions." Kip Hawley, assistant secretary with TSA, told Congress the agency would "re-baseline the program." Secure Flight was the successor to the ill-fated CAPS II program, which was terminated in 2004.

Yesterday, Chicago-based association management giant SmithBucklin announced a deal with MCI, Europe's largest association and event management company, to create a worldwide network of association management resources. The new entity will be known as the "SmithBucklin + MCI Global Partnership." Clients will have access to 15 offices in eight countries, including the United States, Belgium, France, Germany, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The venture gives MCI's president, Roger Tondeur, a seat on SmithBucklin's board, and SmithBucklin chairman and CEO Henry S. Givray a seat on MCI's.

Tim Roby will take over as president of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau in April, filling a position that has been available since Chris Bowers left the post last August. Roby, a Greater Chicago native, had served as senior vice president of Kerzner International Resorts and, before that, as vice president of sales for MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Bill Utter, CCTB's vice president of marketing, who had been acting as interim president, resigned last week.

Harrah's New Orleans Casino will reopen on Feb. 17, having been closed since Hurricane Katrina. Currently, the property has no hotel rooms or meeting space, but work on a 450-room, 26-story hotel directly across the street from the casino has resumed. That property will open this September.

The Convention Industry Council has released the final panel of the Accepted Practices Exchange, dealing with contracts, for public review and discussion. Meeting planners and suppliers who would like to read the document and comment on what clauses should be included in a universal contract template for the meetings industry should visit www.conventionindustry.org by this Friday.