Thursday, December 09, 2010

Travis Clarifies Cloth Conversation

While his comments here are very rare, the intelligent and insightful commenter Travis has written quite a response to my criticism of the MTCVB and the the salaries of its top two officers. More importantly, his comments present perhaps the best material I've read regarding the Cloth and its destructive influence in Tucson. I present his remarks below, and they point to the kind of dialog that is so desperately needed in this community and so lacking. For those interested in matters Cloth, what Travis wrote is must read material:

I’m in a different place on this one. Well, torn, actually. May I ask some questions that clarify, but not necessarily defend?

x4mr’s usually intelligent postings feel here incomplete. Almost like things were trending toward mob mentality where otherwise poignant questions about the functions/finances of a community organization are free license to spray-paint the “cloth” on the doors and begin the lynching.

That “cloth” label is appearing more and more in the comments sections of our local news outlets. That might take away from its efficacy and the real understanding of the meaning x4mr originally gave it.

I’ve eagerly followed x4mr’s questioning/tear-down of TREO and Rio Nuevo largely because it was about damn time.

I was involved as a committee member with GTEC (TREO’s predecessor) and departed in disgust at the absolute bullshit happening there. The organization was clearly doing pretty much what x4mr accuses TREO of. There was no real plan of action, lots of justifying funding by trumpeting “successes” (businesses coming to town) they had no real part in. Overblown salaries, numerous international trips to “forge relationships”, and a hell of a lot of golf. All capped off each year with a nifty PowerPoint for a packed La Paloma ballroom annual meeting where everyone slapped each other’s backs and marveled at the emperor’s snazzy new suit.

A collection of Tucson’s sharper minds realized nothing was getting done, so they worked some board-level magic, folded the organization, and created TREO to get to the many hearts of the issue and revamp the whole economic development scene. I will maintain here that, as messed up as the politics of this are, there remain true leaders, smart individuals, and hard workers involved at all levels who endeavor to improve our city’s lot. Problem is, they have to deal with the “cloth”, too, as they sit right alongside them on the boards and the staffs.

This means that both the well-intentioned and the “cloth” also carried onto the new organization. You can’t have one without the other. (Maybe x4mr can give us a catching name for the well-intentioned. Then we could pit “well-intentioned” against the cloth and we’d have a true good vs. evil story to tell.)

As much as I cringe at the personality involved (brace yourself; the man is incredibly articulate), I once attended a presentation by Newt Gingrich. An audience member challenged him on the inefficiency of our government. Why is everything it does so convoluted, slow, shamefully expensive, and often way off target? Why didn’t anyone just clean house and reorganize it all to be really effective so that we could address languishing issues in education, poverty, and the economy?

He stood back for a second and smiled, the history teacher in him rising to the surface.

“That inefficiency we love to complain about—and I’m right there with you—is actually a gift from our nation’s founding fathers,” he said.

He went on to explain that our open form of government was specifically meant to be a mess because that’s what prevents any one person or group from gaining too much power. It prevents dictatorships. Historically, those regimes that do gain too much power are labeled so that even those with the vaguest knowledge of history can gain from the inherent warnings: Caesar’s Rome. Nazi Germany.

Short version: Our open form of government requires that everyone has a voice and can participate. It makes things slow, frustrating, and diluted. However it prevents the real nastiness of totally efficient governments while allowing for some things only a government can really pull off. Along with this nifty freedom of speech, don’t we really kind of appreciate the U.S. mail, the Interstate highway system, and FAA air traffic control?

Oh, and this Internet thing is kinda cool, too.

On the local level, we have the same thing. Everyone gets a voice/to participate in the government and community organizations/efforts like Rio Nuevo, GTEC/TREO, and the MTCVB. And this is prone to creating inefficiency and occasionally a clusterf***.

In addition to the GTEC/TREO destruction/rebuild, I sat in on a number of the early (wow, 10+ years ago) Rio Nuevo planning meetings. It was an exciting thing, the community coming together to finally get a handle on revitalizing downtown. There were smart, experienced, and well-intentioned leaders involved. But you could also see the influence of those with only self-interest creeping in. Sadly, no clear leader emerged who could corral all the cats, the self-interested pulled the thing in all directions, and we ended up with cluster****. But Tucson’s long been saddled with the same bad group-think. Think placement of the ballpark, the giveaway of land to developers, or the exceedingly long-term failure to assemble any sort of cohesive transportation plan.

At least the Fox Theater is nice. Oh, wait, that was a private party effort, not actually part of Rio Nuevo.

TREO I’m undecided on. I know great individuals on both sides of that coin and they both make excellent points. Maybe it’s just messy and prone to some really dumb moves, as it’s torn in all kinds of political directions. (x4mr = all-too-familiar with that.) But, really, name one similar organization anywhere that has singlehandedly been responsible for the kind of overarching economic development TREO is charged with/aspires to. How the hell do you measure for that?

That brings me around to the MTCVB.

Of all the organizations lumped under Tucson’s “economic development” umbrella, the MTCVB has long been the best organized and seemingly most effective. Because I was once a member—dating back to before the time that current CEO Walker was hired—I have some solid knowledge of their purpose and inner workings. My experience with those other “cloth”-infested organizations had me impressed with this one.

A few facts:

1. Tourism is one of Tucson’s top revenue-generating industries. That means it currently employs many, many people AND brings dollars to our community, both in business profits and tax revenues. Though it can’t really support a downtown hotel, it’s one of the big ones that is actually working for us on a large scale.

2. A significant portion of the MTCVB’s funds come not from our tax dollars, but from a “bed tax” paid by those who visit our community and stay in hotels. This tax was instituted specifically to support the tourism industry in Tucson through its own efforts. More tourism = more bed taxes = more budget with which to promote tourism to Tucson. We all voted for that, as it makes some sense. We don’t pay this tax unless we stay in our own hotels. However, we DO pay bed taxes in other cities when we stay in their hotels. Stick it to the tourists, man.

3. The MTCVB’s membership is less “cloth” oriented and more focused on its industry. That includes many small restaurant, hotel, and other tourism-related business owners. That’s you and me. (Though Humberto “give me money for my crappy hotel or I shut it down and maybe lose you the gem shows” Lopez is part of that circle, too.)

4. Within its field, Tucson’s MTCVB is highly-regarded. In fact, their originally foray into online marketing set the initial standards for their sister organizations around the nation. It’s more than a web site; it’s a whole email/database marketing system. It’s also very efficient, as they are able to market directly to specific interests/market segments (i.e. golf, ecotourism, regions of the country/world, and age groups). At the time, it was cutting-edge to the point that the Tucson firm that built it for them packaged the technology and sold it to many other CVBs nationwide. All their numbers are closely tracked, including the number of calls made to their various 800- lines and web traffic. But that’s key: there are real numbers to look at.

Lest it sound like I’m defending them, I’ve heard rumblings the past few years from the right players suggesting that the MTCVB’s financials need some real looking into.

Here we are. As Warren Buffett put it, “A rising tide may raise all boats; but when the tide goes back out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.” It’s the upside to the down economy. We see which organizations ain’t doing things right. Fewer dollars to spread around mean we start asking better questions before we hand it over.

Instead of trying to argue for or against the MTCVB, I’d like to pose the questions that are occurring to me as I read these articles/watch the (cringe) Fox video:

1. The $2.3 million: Is this money the City gives to the MTCVB in addition to the “bed tax” dollars (which are specifically designated for this purpose)? If it is “in addition”, what would the MTCVB have to scale back/eliminate were this money no longer available? Would that have a realistic direct effect on the results they are achieving (if any) for Tucson?

2. Why does Walker look like a deer in the headlights in this interview and in front of the Supes? He’s way smarter than that. Plus, it should have been obvious to him and his PR team that this was coming. Is this just Fox news doing what they do? Or, is there something else happening here? Walker’s long had some of the best PR counsel in town. Did he get rid of them?

3. Wow, salary $230K seems high. How does that compare with others in his position in other cities? Is that out of whack or just what talent at his level makes these days? (Remember, we want to make sure we have that talent. If we fail to compensate talent at an equitable level, they can probably find satisfactory compensation elsewhere and we end up with second-rate leaders.) Better yet, are we getting from Walker enough to justify that salary? It’s what his board approved, right?

4. Is $180K salary for an assistant, as in an administrative assistant, or are we mistakenly referring to his VP of Marketing as an “assistant”. The VP is also high-level and well-regarded talent within that industry. However, that VP is also a long-term friend of Walker’s. Are we talking cronyism, or are we getting what we’re actually paying for? Also, re-use the same questions from #3.

5. What do the MTCVBs results (the numbers) look like? How are things measured: Responses volumes to ads distributed? Phone calls? Online statistics? How are these correlated with actual visits/tourism dollars spent here? How does that compare with what other cities are doing?

6. (Maybe this is more like #5b, but I do like a good list of 10) How closely do Tucson’s tourism statistics (airline passengers, hotel nights stayed, big events attracted) correlate with the MTCVB’s stated efforts/numbers? x4mr will, of course, warn us that correlation is not necessarily causation or any other sort of direct effect. Perhaps we should get him and his big stats brain to skip a weird movie (Human Centipede, really?) and give us the low-down here.

7. The MTCVB is a membership organization. Its membership is largely made up of businesses that (supposedly) benefit from its efforts. How do THEY feel? If its impact directly helps/hinders them, why do they keep paying dues and buying ads on the web site and in the MTCVB’s magazine? Know anyone who is a lowly member? What will he/she tell you if you buy them a drink/cigar and speak in hushed tones?

8. Speaking of the magazine, my understanding is that it is advertiser, not tax-payer supported. Is it supporting itself? How do the advertisers feel about its value? Do they find visitors walking in with it or coupons from it? Considering so much is now online, is the magazine still a relevant part of the MTCVB’s marketing efforts? How many people is it delivered to?

9. How overlapping are the leadership/boards (and look historically, too) of the MTCVB and the other certified-cloth organizations? While you’re sorting that out, how do you determine which individuals are “cloth” and which are true leaders/well-intentioned who have to operate in the same circles to get things done? This is politics, after all. Messy, messy.

10. How do the MTCVB’s budget, staff size, and activities stack up within their industry? When presented with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, what do other CVB-type organizations react? They were (at least once) regarded as a shining star amongst this crowd. Still the case?

Cliché for my bottom line here: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Let’s not just label everyone “cloth” just because they’re in overlapping circles. There are good people out there, too. People who are working to lead Tucson to better places. Ask better questions. Then, if things come up fishy, get out the torches and ropes. We are, after all, marketed as a true “western” town: cowboys, cactus, and the dusty boots of a sheriff’s posse. Tourists would probably love an old-style hangin'.


Awesome, Travis. Your comments are most welcome and appreciated.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Robish said...

Travis, Matt, and All:
Many of Travis' excellent questions will be answered by Pima County's audit and the City of Tucson's performance review. Pima County is specifically looking at best practices from peer organizations, that is, CVB's in other cities that compete with Tucson.

Pima County gives them over $2.5 million a year. The City of Tucson is giving MTCVB about $2.7 million this year, after having cut their funding by over a million, and it is ALL from the bed tax. That number represents one-third of the amount that the city collects from the bed tax, which is, by law, the minimum ratio of bed tax that must be applied to a tourism marketing agency.
There are people in positions to decide these things looking at splitting that bed tax funding, spreading it around a little more, not funding MTCVB alone. Taking some of the money away and giving it to another agency would definitely get Walker's attention.

Ray Carroll has asked Frank Antenori and other legislators to find a way to make it easier to give some of the Bureau's bed tax funding to another organization, such as the Green Valley Chamber of Commerce.

What is striking about Walker's deer-in-the-headlights performances at the BOS and the City Council is that he is the president of a public relations organization, and yet, it is as if he is totally unprepared to do the public relations for his own organization.

Question #4, the answer is that $181K is going for the total compensation package for Senior VP Rick Vaughan, not just an "assistant". MTCVB is certainly a very labor-heavy organization. Lots of people making a good living. We know that they spend over $3 million on compensation, but they haven't told us how much they spend to advertise the region.

I have another question. Why was Dana Cooper asked to come back to the board, even after his wife was hired to a key position at the Bureau? Is this not cronyism at its worst?

I agree with Travis that the discussion of the Cloth on this blog and elsewhere needs to be much more nuanced. There is a bit too much overgeneralizing going on about the various organizations on this blog (be it from Matt's always provocative posts or in the comments) and I've been meaning to throw my two cents' worth in on this point.

DTP is described as an all-Cloth organization, which it certainly is not. DTP has plenty of Cloth, but also plenty of bright, generally decent people who figure they'd better hang around and be part of whatever success DTP might stumble into or be given credit for, or to make connections that might help them or their businesses. They may not be courageous about saying no to the Cloth-y company they keep, but they are not bad people out to fleece the populace.

Even TREO, which is pretty darn Clothified, has a board that has SOME people who are well-intentioned, and who expect some level of competency and performance.

These organizations tend to have a mixture of board members. They certainly include Cloth-y types like Steve Lynn, Larry Hecker, and Lisa Lovallo, who are essentially in the business of spinning a happy story to perpetuate whatever favored relationship with the powers-that-be enjoy with their employers or clients.

There are others who understand they have to stay on the good side of Cloth, but aren't Cloth themselves. I'm not going to name any names here.

There are also very well-meaning, very real people who wind up on some of these boards because they filled a particular stakeholder slot. These people often understand fully that they are surrounded by sharks, but feel it's important to stay there and keep an eye on them and occasionally speak out with integrity. Not naming names here either.

Even some of the Cloth have good intentions, and genuinely believe that the established Cloth leaders have integrity.

I realize this would be a more persuasive argument with names and examples, but it would be better if I didn't go there.

12/09/2010 10:24 PM  
Blogger Cigar Man said...

Just when I'm having fun feeling all self-righteous, Travis has to show up and complicate things with this stuff called reality.

Like Robish said, DTP is not an all cloth entity. I think it invoked x4mr's wrath when they brought in Glen Lyons (total cloth), got rid of Donovan Durband (not cloth at all), and hired that twit wife of Trasoff's guy, or something like that. Now Lyons and the twit are both gone.

If anyone thinks Joe Snell is anything but a bucket of self infatuated filth, they haven't met him.

x4mr's ridicule of MTCVB as making pamphlets and a website that don't do anything at all might be an exaggeration, but Travis and I will have to disagree on the efficiency and effectiveness of that bloated schmooze club. Those people have it SWEET for what they actually do.

x4mr is no longer in town, so his precision about Tucson things is naturally going to decline. He probably knows this. I agree with him that what Travis wrote is a step in the direction that the discussion needs to go.

People like Travis and Robish, not to mention O'Dell and the other reporters, are the ones that will have to do it.

12/10/2010 11:36 AM  
Blogger Liza said...

This post and discussion is starting to remind me of a typical blogosphere dissection.

I have a technical background. I worked with teams that developed software. Every project had a mission statement and a list of goals, all measurable. Our projects had work breakdown structures, schedules, and budgets. We allocated resources to tasks. When we were done, there was a new computer system in place that met or exceeded the business and technical requirements that were defined for the project.

I would imagine that my experience with software development is much the same as other workers who have to produce something tangible or provide a service that is verifiable.

The point is, when people are working and money is being spent, there is a reasonable expectation that something should be produced. Look at Tucson and explain where it all went.

Should we continue brushing the beast with a fine tooth comb and try to determine who or what in this sea of failure is worth keeping? We are to believe that well intentioned people were a part of all this but could not extricate themselves from the overpowering cloth to accomplish anything?

That may be true, but the simple fact is that if the well intentioned are ineffective they are as useless as cloth. Why should we assume that they would be effective in a different setting working with different people? Who even cares (except for those who benefit or stay employed by these kinds of analyses?)

I'm not saying that the audit should be disregarded, but it is time, way past time, to clear the decks.

People are fed up, and rightfully so.

12/11/2010 9:42 AM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

As usual, I agree with Liza, and while Travis asks good questions, and yes, x4mr swings out at the whole enchilada without discriminating, I think he is right to do so.

What is there bottom line is the lack of results year after year despite the outlandish sums spent on these agencies.

Other cities, which have been cited repeatedly at this blog by x4mr and others, produce solid, tangible, easily seen results. I know x4mr has mentioned Albuquerque many times, and I know that city, and he is absolutely right.

About 20 years ago, it was in the same shape as Tucson. 30 years ago, it was in worse shape. These two cities are extremely comparable, and look at Albuquerque now.

Tucson has/had everything in its favor from the sunshine to the mountains to the location to the flagship university, and our labor force is for shit. Cigar Man and x4mr could write a book on why.

Oh right, x4mr DID write a book on why.

I don't have the background or knowledge to judge MTCVB, but I find it hard to believe that it is effective. Until proven otherwise, I think tourism in Tucson is what happens by itself by virtue of natural advantages.

I don't think I have ever seen it captured better than when x4mr wrote, "Paid by the community to serve the community, the cloth serve themselves and each other."

In the case of SAIAT, we had the cloth deliberately destroy something that was truly serving the community just so it (TREO) could take its funding.

12/11/2010 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Robish said...

TREO and MTCVB are both very good at lecturing their public funders on the theory behind their work, and then expecting their audience to deduce that because they understand this theory, they are surely applying it to successful practice.

MTCVB likes to trot out the jolly and affable Felipe Garcia to talk about how important Mexican shoppers are to Tucson's economy, then say that he is working somehow to promote Mexican tourism, and then expect the audience to make the leap and assume that MTCVB is therefore responsible for all the Mexican tourism in Tucson.

Similarly, TREO is very adept at lecturing on basic economic development theory, and then fails utterly in demonstrating that it is exerting the slightest bit of effort to applying this theory to practice.

It goes something like this: 1. firms that export goods and services outside the area and import dollars into the area are the most desirable to recruit because they bring in new money, and 2., the Tucson area has recently been selected by firms such as these as a site for relocation, therefore, 3. TREO is responsible for these new jobs (because it understands the relationship??).

We can hope that one or both of the audits of MTCVB will shed some light on the ultimate question: how much of an impact does their effort make on increasing and enhancing tourism and convention business in the Tucson area?

DTP's thing is to talk excitedly about the recent positive activity in downtown and to hope that its audience will agree with its implication that it had everything to do with causing these positive changes.

The overall behavior pattern is the same: talk about positive progress, latch onto it, and attempt to grab credit for it.

12/12/2010 2:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim Glock, head of Tucson Transportation Department, is part of the group retiring. Is he Cloth?

12/14/2010 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Robish said...

No, but the retirement of Cindy Bezaury as Human Resources Director will cause dancing in the streets.

Mike Letcher will be retiring in 2011 too, but he may not know it yet.

12/14/2010 9:16 PM  

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