City Hall

VisitDallas Wins Ugly at City Council

Former VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones in 2016, right, with Mayor Mike Rawlings
Former VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones in 2016, right, with Mayor Mike Rawlings World Travel and Tourism Council
VisitDallas remains an organization non grata for multiple Dallas City Council members, that much is clear after Wednesday's City Council meeting. That didn't stop the embattled tourism promotion firm from winning grudging support for contractual changes meant to fix the long list of problems with way the organization keeps its books, pays its executive and does its job that a Dallas city audit turned up in January.

According to the audit, VisitDallas' problems boiled down to an almost complete lack of transparency on all fronts. City auditors found that city staff failed to properly monitor how VisitDallas spent the $30 million in hotel occupancy tax and Dallas tourism public improvement district cash it gets from the city each year. VisitDallas also failed to make the $500,000 payments it's supposed to make for capital improvements to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in a timely manner and failed to document how it creates the data that's in the monthly and yearly reports it gives to the city.

VisitDallas' former CEO Phillip Jones, who made $700,000 a year, also expensed a $543 Tumi backpack and spent more than $17,000 on 18 hotel stays, despite VisitDallas rules limiting hotel reimbursement to $180 a night in all cities except New York, where the reimbursement can be $250 per night.

Jones is gone now, and VisitDallas, along with the more than 20 tourism industry bigwigs who showed up to speak on its behalf Wednesday, swears that things are going to be better this time.

VisitDallas' amended contract requires that it tell Dallas how it plans to spend the city's cash by March 30, give the council an annual report by Dec. 30 and have a review of executive compensation and expense review on May 1.

Multiple City Council members remained unsatisfied with VisitDallas, despite the proposed fixes.

"We shouldn't be scrambling here at the horseshoe to figure out the financials of an entity that's getting our tax dollars," council member Adam Bazaldua said.

He would vote for the amended contract, he said, but only because he didn't want to adversely affect those who actually make sure Dallas' tourism keeps running.

"I wish that I could vote no on this." — Adam Bazaldua

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"I came from the hospitality industry and I believe that the working class is the driving force in the economy in this city. The driving force in what brings (tourism) to this city, so I don't want to make a decision that is going to impact them ... I wish that I could vote no on this," he said. 

Council member Omar Narvaez echoed Bazaldua. When VisitDallas officials came to City Hall to address the audit earlier this year, Narvaez said, he'd hoped that they'd realized who they worked for — Dallas residents, rather than VisitDallas itself. He still doesn't think VisitDallas has gotten the point, he said.

"You're just worried about fixing the audit issues ... VisitDallas, I hope you open your ears this time," he said. "Do better."

VisitDallas' contract with the city expires in September. The council will decide whether to continue its partnership with the tourism agency next year.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young