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.

"In the entertainment business and the hospitality business, you sell with hospitality," Ducate said. "How could it make any sense to sell with culture? That's why the convention bureau needs to have seats for the Mavericks and the Stars and the Cowboys.

"That's why they pick people up in limousines and why the hotels put them in suites and give them booze and bananas. It's the culture of that group, because when they are looking at bringing their members here, they need to be able to experience that same sort of thing."

Ducate's first reference to culture was, I believe, in response to an anecdote I had related to him, which I will now relate to you. It's about Mayor Miller.

According to this story, which may or may not be apocryphal, the convention bureau was trying to pitch the national plumbing supply association. Then-Mayor Miller, who was in the meeting, spent a good deal of time telling the plumbing supply people about the newly opened Nasher Sculpture Center. As I heard it at the time, a plumbing person finally leaned forward after a while and said, "What is this, just a bunch of statues?"

I asked Miller about this story last week. She said, "I don't even remember a plumbers' convention. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. I just don't remember any plumbers' convention."

But she was adamant that the behavior of the convention staff under Whitney was unacceptable. "The issue with Dave Whitney was that there was a culture in the bureau at the time for them to be escorting conventioneers to topless clubs and spending money lavishly on a lot of entertainment that they seemed to be enjoying as much as using to attract business."

The place Miller was so exercised about was The Lodge, one of the most high-end topless clubs in the country. I am not an habitué, but the other day when I visited to talk to proprietor Dawn Rizos, I was reminded how conservative the place is. It's Bent Tree Country Club without the trophy wives. Come to think of it, maybe it's where Bent Tree gets its trophy wives.

I told Rizos I thought her club seemed sort of Republican: That is, it has a certain conservative, suburban air.

"That's always been my goal," she said. "Really. I mean that with the most sincerity.

"Everyone that works here has a background check before they ever hit the floor. We just keep a tight rein on things. All our waitstaff, bartenders and managers are all breathalyzed at the end of each shift to make sure they haven't had a drink."

If you have a respectable place staffed by consenting adults who are making a hell of a lot of money, tell me again why that's a bad thing. Talk about a nanny state.

But Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, told me it is the official policy of the CVB to omit such places in the selling of the city.

"I don't think it's appropriate for us to use hotel occupancy taxes to fund trips to strip clubs," he said. Jones said not taking clients to strip clubs is "consistent with the brand of the city."

Now, this next bit you have to follow closely. Remember that the city's official strategy is to sell Dallas as a tourism destination and hope the convention business will follow.

Jones said, "We're not selling Las Vegas or New Orleans. We're selling a city that has great access by air, world-class restaurants and hotels and attractions like the arts district."

So we're selling the convention center by selling Dallas as a tourism destination. But we're not selling anything about Las Vegas or New Orleans, meaning we're not selling anything risqué or risky. And no sex, don't forget. So our tourism pitch is based on having good hotels and an arts district and on this being a sexless place that is reachable by airplane.

I asked Jones if maybe we should throw in something just for grins about also having a lot of really good strip clubs?

Jones said no. He said we don't need that. Jones told me that Dallas has been doing much better than other cities around the country at booking conventions.

It's hard to keep up with some of the claims. Jones' staff provided me with a list of 88 conventions that have not booked Dallas since 2003 when Whitney left. According to the analysis, this "lost business" adds up to a million hotel room-nights and $1.5 billion in economic impact.

The convention bureau says all of these conventions were lost because we don't have a downtown convention hotel. I can well imagine that none of the associations that didn't come to town, when contacted, wrote back, "Jones wouldn't take us to The Lodge."

All I know is, we gave up sex, and they didn't come.

But Jones insists Dallas has got the right message for Obama times. "We're known industry-wide as a good business destination. It's looking very positive for us, because they like the city and they like all that we offer as a destination, and they also know that they're not going to get in trouble for hosting a meeting in Dallas."

So let's count it up again. Good hotels. Arts district. Reachable by airplane. No sex. If you come here you won't get in trouble.

Wow. And then even better, with the new downtown hotel, conventioneers will be able to go straight from their workshops to their rooms at night.

I see a new motto brewing.


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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze