Dallas a Great Convention Town -- for Nuns

Mayor Tom Leppert and The Dallas Morning News are hell-bent for leather to invest half a billion bucks in public money in a city-owned convention "headquarters" hotel downtown to save the city's convention business.

But should we stop and reflect on the fact that the decline in the city's convention business is notably parallel with a decision made six years ago to sell Dallas as the nation's anti-sex capital?

Did you know we are anti-sex now? I didn't. It slipped right by me. But I'm old. I thought people were just anti-me.

The truth is that the city's convention and visitors bureau now operates on a distinct policy of de-emphasizing adult entertainment. Maybe even more important, the convention and visitors bureau seems to have forsaken the old way of bringing in conventions.

Until 2003 Dallas pitched the convention center the old-fashioned way, with personal strategic appeals to the small universe of insiders who make up the convention industry. Now we're selling Dallas broadly as a tourism destination.

The hope is that once all the tourists start flocking to Dallas we'll get a lot of conventions on the back end. And the tourists are going to flock to Dallas because...?

Are you starting to see what I see? Ask the average person which he would give up first. A hotel close to the convention center? Or sex?

Think of this question in the longest range of human history.

I need to do a bit of recent history here, especially because my own totally unfair and biased predilection would have been to blame the whole anti-sexitude thing on a bunch of right-wing, Bible-thumping Baptists. But in fact it was Laura Miller, our liberal Democratic, Jewish former mayor, who cracked the sexy whip on this one.

Think back. In 2003 in an explosion of blue-nosed fury, Miller ran off the chief executive officer of the convention and visitor's bureau and figuratively beheaded the chairman of the board, who was supposed to be her friend and political ally. Their sin? They had allowed CVB staffers to entertain clients at a strip club.

Heaven forfend! Where is the Taliban when we need them?

In Miller's office, apparently. In an April 1, 2003, story in D Magazine by Adam McGill, Miller was quoted as saying the CEO and chairman of the convention and visitors bureau had to be banished unto the outer territories, far from the view of decent gentle persons, because they had been "sitting there on television saying, 'If customers want to go to strip joints, we're going to take them.'"

"Well, no," Miller told McGill. "I don't think so. That's not the way it ought to work."

It's not?

Miller went after Dave Whitney, the CEO of the bureau, and Chris Luna, the chairman of the board, with an angry cat-o'-nine-tails, painting them in public as libertines living the high life on the taxpayer's tab.

From what people have told me, relatively little of Whitney's expertise has to do with taking people to topless clubs anyway. It was more about identifying members of the Dallas business and professional community who were on the boards of national associations and then lobbying them to lobby their groups to come to Dallas. It was about knowing everybody in the small universe of convention booking and knowing every last detail about every last one of them.

I called Whitney for this story. He left me a very nice phone message saying he really did not want to be drawn back into this sad chapter of history and would have no comment. I completely understand. The whole subject is radioactive, and several people I spoke with did not want to be named.

A prominent restaurateur who spoke about this on a not-for-attribution basis told me this about Whitney: "Dave would come in here with a handful of expensive cigars. He would say, 'A guy's coming in here in a few days from the pharmaceutical association or whatever. We're trying to get his convention. These are his favorite cigars. Hand him these when he walks in the door. Tell him, "Welcome to Dallas," and give him a bottle of a certain wine that he likes.'

"Dave Whitney knows everybody," the restaurateur said. "It's a tiny, tiny world—the world of people who book conventions. He knows that world. He knows how to read people. That's how it works. The guy I gave the expensive bottle of wine to said to me, 'If this is how Dallas treats me, then I know this is how Dallas will treat the members of my association when they come here.'"

Doug Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, a national organization that happens to be headquartered in Dallas, told me that taking people out and showing them a good time is the centerpiece of a good sales strategy for attracting convention business.