The Rest of the Story: Visit Dallas Speaks Out Following City Audit
CVBs are thrilled to be in headlines when it comes to stories boasting record tourism to their respective cities, often for which they deserve credit. Yet Visit Dallas could have done without the media blitz that ensued this month following the release of an audit in January that revealed numbers viewed as unsavory to some.
In a meeting of Dallas City Council’s Government Performance and Financial Management Committee last week, three of the five members voted against canceling the city’s contract with the CVB as a result of the audit. While that much is good news, it’s not the end of the bad press for Visit Dallas, as the full council is expected to be briefed on the audit in the coming weeks.
The issues in question? Questionable reporting tactics when it comes to ROI of the CVB’s marketing efforts, as well as Visit Dallas’ President and CEO Phillip Jones’ $700,000 salary, according to local reports.
Councilman Scott Griggs claimed during the meeting that of the 53 citywide conventions held in Dallas last year, only 43 percent met the minimum requirements of 2,500 room nights for visitor hotel bookings.
The fact that Visit Dallas — like most CVBs — is partially funded by tax dollars is what has raised red flags following the audit. About $16 million of Visit Dallas’ annual revenue is derived from the city’s hotel occupancy tax, and $14 million comes from the city’s Tourism Public Improvement District.
Yet few reports have given equal play to both sides of the story. As it turns out, the audit was the first time the city has ever audited Visit Dallas, which comes with a learning curve.
For Will Seccombe, now president of Connect Travel, the situation Visit Dallas has found itself in is all too familiar. (The former president of Visit Florida was terminated by the organization in 2016 following media outrage over a marketing contract he signed with recording artist Pitbull the previous year.)
“A lot of the challenges around the audit and negative PR around it are driven by a language barrier,” explains Seccombe. DMOs are public-private partnerships that operate like private businesses and auditors are the government. That’s akin to “them speaking English and you speaking Spanish,” he adds.
Seccombe points to the larger challenge facing DMOs: accurately tracking and measuring results. He cites an old John Wanamaker quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is waster; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” For citywides, he says, it’s relatively easy to identify the leads they’re bringing in, but leisure marketing becomes its own animal, with it being nearly impossible to accurately track the source of leisure travel bookings.
“CVBs by their nature are not the ones contracting, so it’s difficult — it’s much harder than showing a transaction would be,” says Seccombe. “You won’t find a DMO that doesn’t have well-articulated and tracked KPIs. But most of those KPIs (room nights, conventions booked, events serviced) are not natural language for the government.”
So can this entire situation with Visit Dallas be chalked up to a misunderstanding? It’s a tough call, yet Jones is trying to set the record straight by calling out the fact that many elements play into KPIs they’re measuring.
For example: “In today’s environment, you have Airbnb, VRBO, Travelocity, Expedia… and according to recent studies by Destinations International, PCMA and others, up to one-third of attendees booking outside the [hotel room] block,” says Jones. “If you want it to truly reflect what that consumption is, you have to incorporate those factors.”
The biggest problem overall, says Jones — echoing Seccombe’s sentiment —is a lack of knowledge and understanding about how our industry works. “They thought the numbers weren’t accurate, and I said, ‘When you drill down into it, you’ll see that they were accurate,’” he adds.
Both Seccombe and Jones are intimately acquainted with how quickly all of an organization’s good work — such as the fact that 15 years ago, Dallas was booking less than 500,000 room nights annually, and last year they booked 2.5 million, according to Jones — is overlooked in favor of salacious negative news.
“We have the best teams in the country; I’m proud of the work that we do; and I don’t want to take anything away from them,” says Jones. “We don’t want [the city] to think that for whatever reason we’re not doing what we were supposed to be doing, because we are. But that being said, there are always areas where we can make improvements.”
The fact that this is an election year hasn’t helped matters, Seccombe points out. There are always politicians who’d like to see money going toward the CVB go elsewhere, or who don’t understand the ROI of destination marketing in general.
While Visit Dallas shouldn’t face any long-term backlash from the industry (as in, shows taking their business elsewhere), says Seccombe, it’s not always easy to bounce back. “Once you’re under the microscope, it’s very difficult to get out,” he says.
Going forward, the question becomes how DMOs can shift the message from talking about record visitation and other big numbers, to instead identifying how much the work they’re doing benefits the local community, its citizens and their quality of life.
In the next council briefing, scheduled for May, Visit Dallas will address the issues brought up by the audit and detail the new model they’ll be adopting. It’s a course correction for the CVB, but one that may also have a ripple effect for DMOs around the country.
“This is an issue that our entire industry struggles with,” says Jones, “because every CVB has to find ways to demonstrate the impact of the work that they do.”
Lisa Plummer Savas also contributed to the reporting of this story.