Usually, we citizens of commerce are comfortable with bifurcated minds.
In general, we're conservative. We want to keep personal and corporate taxes low. We have strong feelings about accountability, particularly regarding how tax dollars are spent.
But when it comes to using public funds to support our industry, we have a more liberal economic perspective. It's clear to us that government spending to support travel results in job growth and an expanded tax base, benefiting both ourselves and the general public.
We don't feel conflict between these viewpoints, because responsible use of tax money is the common thread.
These days, our bifurcated minds are giving us a headache. On a few fronts, the gap appears to be widening between what we and the public consider to be responsible use of tax dollars in support of travel.
We, like most Americans, want companies that have taken government bailout dollars to act prudently, and through our associations, we have crafted reasonable meetings guidelines for these companies. But the guidelines haven't been adopted, and with every week's delay, another story breaks about a recipient of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds appearing to spend taxpayer money irresponsibly on upscale meetings and events, with a chilling effect on the luxury sector.
And another gap has appeared. Controversies are arising regarding the most visible travel-related public-private enterprises that exist in most localities: convention and visitors bureaus.
These days Gary Sain, who heads the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, cannot read a CVB-related article in the Orlando Sentinel without some reference to his spending $9,271 on a business-class ticket to Dubai last year. Never mind that the purchase was within his defined travel parameters and was paid for only with private funds. The public has other bones to pick with the CVB, and this expenditure has become entangled with taxpayer rage over money spent on upscale travel.
Financial scrutiny is also increasing at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. At issue is the LVCVA's relationship to the ad agency R&R Partners (which coined "What happens here ...") and a donation the LVCVA made to a charity that ultimately gave the LVCVA's CEO, Rossi Ralenkotter, an award.
To understand the mood of the citizenry, go to Orlando and Las Vegas newspapers' websites and scan reader comments under related articles. The hostility toward the CVBs in these cities, which are economically dependent on travel, is stunning.
Perhaps Sain, given the chance to do it again, would purchase a seat in coach. Ralenkotter has acknowledged that his award was not worth the grief it caused. But what about companies receiving tax dollars that hold upscale events?
You'd think that after the AIG and Wells Fargo incidents, no more would surface. But then along came Northern Trust. Did its executives misjudge probable public reaction? Or did they simply still believe that it was good for businesses to meet in nice places and hold events that make attendees feel special?
Probably both. Although Northern Trust has set back the notion that sometimes upscale travel for business is OK, its underlying business motivation is a good (long-term) indicator for the industry. It suggests that corporate austerity programs won't outlive the recession by even a day.
We in the industry are taking pains to align ourselves with both the citizenry and travel interests. In the current environment, however, that bifurcation is proving difficult to reconcile.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].