VisitDallas executives, including CEO Phillip Jones, addressed major concerns brought to light in a Dallas City Hall audit that claimed a lack of oversight of the bureau.

The audit, released Friday, January 4, 2019, claimed the oversight led to vague metrics measuring the bureau’s performance and also questioned financial issues such as expenses and Jones’ $700,000 annual compensation.

“It’s important to note that 90 percent of what the audit is finding and recommending deals directly with the city and not with VisitDallas,” Jones told Meetings Today, adding that much of the audit is calling for new reporting mechanisms, new accountability and new protocols from the city’s side.

“We’ve made it clear that we are going to take the recommendations very seriously and that we welcome further strengthening the protocols and policies that VisitDallas already has in place,” he added.

VisitDallas Travel Expenses Raise Questions After Audit

Audit concerns related specifically to VisitDallas included expenses for items such as hotel stays, meals, gifts and personal items. Jones and others defended the bureau’s—and the VisitDallas board’s—discretion in the handling of the expenses.

“Everything that was identified had an exception that was approved by either my finance chair or my board of directors chair, and for one of the findings that we exceeded policy for hotel rooms in high-cost cities like New York, Chicago and D.C., that was based on 2010 rates,” he said.

“So we’ve updated our policy to include what the average daily rate and the allowable amount is in all those cities to reflect 2018-2019 rates,” Jones clarified.

“We all know that when there are big conventions in cities like New York or Chicago or Washington, you’re going to pay rates that are higher than normal, which is what happened in some of the cases,” he added. “In all other cases, I was within guidelines of what our policy allowed, even at the lower level.”

Jones pointed to one recent news report that inaccurately claimed roughly $17,000 in hotel expenditures resulting in approximately $950 per night of expenses.

“They’re thinking I stayed 18 nights for $17,000, but the reality is I have stayed 50-plus nights for $17,000, each of them with an approved exception and all other 50-plus hotel room stays were within the guidelines and even at a low level,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jones said over the period of the audit, his meal expenses averaged less than $25 per day, adding that he is on the road selling Dallas more than 100 days per year.

Payments Made to the City of Dallas Also in Question

Another concern raised in the audit was untimely payments by VisitDallas to the city and Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas for major improvements to the facility.

Jones said VisitDallas has always immediately paid the city for any invoice received. For the specific example in the audit, he added that the then executive director of the convention center decided to delay sending an invoice until they determined the specific capital needs to address.

During a press conference held on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, Arthur Hollingsworth, VisitDallas board member and managing partner of Lone Star Investment Advisors, addressed metrics related to Jones’ annual compensation as one of the highest-paid CVB CEOs in the country.

“The audit reported that the performance metrics for VisitDallas are vague in our contract with the city,” Hollingsworth said. “The finance committee and ultimately the entire VisitDallas board discusses and sets specific metrics and goals for the CEO each fiscal year.

“These goals and metrics for the organization are very specific with substantial third-party documentation to demonstrate performance, all of which is provided to the city,” he added.

Jones told Meetings Today that the process the board uses is a very detailed and comprehensive protocol, and they spend a lot of time and effort developing the goals on an annual basis.

“They use a very comprehensive due diligence process to compare my salary to the salaries of CEOs in comparable cities,” Jones said. “They hold me accountable to each of those goals every year.”

Jones Defends Tenure With VisitDallas

In the 15 years he has led VisitDallas, Jones said he has always met or exceeded expectations, taking an organization that was $3 million in debt and making it financially sound, while increasing room night bookings from 500 when he arrived to 2.5 million. 

“After the first two years of cleaning up and putting a new team in place, I’ve never not made my room night goal—ever,” he said. “And that’s 13 years of straight growth across the board, and each year that goal has gone up. So this past year [in 2018] it was 2.5 million.

“It’s not easy, but I’ve done it, and I have a great team that helped me do it,” he added.

“At the end of the day, we stand behind our success in terms of bringing a record number of visitors and meetings and conventions to the city,” Jones said.

Additional Details From VisitDallas Press Conference

During the January 9 press conference, Greg White of the VisitDallas Board of Directors, president of HANTX and general manager of the Westin Galleria Dallas, spoke of how much the local hotel industry has benefited from the work by Jones and the entire VisitDallas organization for the past 15 years.

"We’ve seen an increase in hotel room bookings at many hotels throughout Dallas—not only in the central downtown area, but throughout the city," White said. "In the past six years, our growth across virtually all hotel metrics has outpaced the state and national figures, and the average of the top-25 markets in the country.

"In addition to growing tourism and convention numbers, Phillip’s role has also been to protect the tourism and hotel business, not only in Dallas, but throughout the state," he added, pointing to one example of [Phillip's] leadership in guiding the industry through the bathroom bill fight in 2017.

"Dallas was in danger of losing dozens of meetings, conventions and events, and thus our hotels were facing thousands of room night cancellations and millions of dollars in hotel tax revenue, had a bathroom bill passed in Texas," White said. "He went down to Austin, met with legislators, and testified at several hearings, defending our tourism and business industry, to the benefit of all in Dallas and the state of Texas."

Jones said the next step is for VisitDallas executives to meet with city officials to discuss the audit and make any improvements in procedures and protocols to continue remaining completely transparent and in compliance.

Editor's Note: Meetings Today reached out to the City of Dallas for their input but had not heard back at press time. 

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