You Paid For It: Pinellas tourism promoters spend bed tax dollars on food, wine, and travel

CVB Executive Director David Downing
CVB Executive Director David Downing

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Pinellas tourism promoters boast that visitor spending adds billions to the local economy. What they don’t brag about so much is all of the bed tax dollars that tourism promoters spend on travel and entertainment at some of the world’s finest hotels and restaurants in order to grease that tourist money machine.

Pinellas tourism promoters spend millions and if you spent even a single night in a Pinellas hotel or motel, You Paid For It.

Our investigation reveals that over an eight-month period ending in July, 32 staff members at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) spent $1.3 million on their Pinellas County issued credit cards. The high spender on the CVB staff racked up $196,000 for luxury travel to destinations as far away as South Africa.

CVB Executive Director David Downing calls that kind of credit card spending  on the bed tax dime an achievement, not a problem. “Well, I’d say wait till the end of the year when it’s more like $2 million,” Downing said. “This is investment, this is what we do.”

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The CVB spends more than any other Pinellas County government agency on credit cards. Leroy Bridges, who handles communications for the CVB tells Eight on Your Side the CVB  staff has to use cards under a county “mandate” and that some of the spending is recouped through credit card rewards programs that contribute to the county’s $300,000 annual rebate on credit card use.

Downing insists that staying at swanky hotels like the Fairmont, Four Seasons, Waldorf Astoria and the Bellagio or entertaining clients at the world’s finest restaurants and throwing liquor-laced parties from Napa Valley to Cape Town is all part of the tourism marketing game. “That’s how this business works,” Downing said.

Apparently, it works both ways. The CVB also sponsors dream vacations to Pinellas destinations for travel agents, travel writers and meeting planners, all courtesy of bed  taxpayers.  Some of that spending occurs in hotels such as the Sand Pearl, Tradewinds, and Sheraton Sand Key that are owned or managed by members of the Tourism Development Council that oversees the CVB budget and operations.

The objective is to attract more visitors and their money to our sun-kissed beaches. Plying journalists and travel professionals with alcohol is commonplace and according to Downing, perfectly legal. “Statutorily sanctioned,” Downing said. ”This is business. This is how it goes.”

All of that largesse is made possible by Pinellas County’s bed tax which assesses hotel and motel guests a six percent fee on their lodging bills. That tax generates about $46 million a year in Pinellas County which spends 57 percent of that amount, or about $26 million on tourism marketing and operations at the CVB.

All of that cash enables Downing’s staff to use their county credit cards like there’s no tomorrow in their quest to sell the Pinellas Suncoast to the world. According to the records we reviewed, Downing’s staff spent an average of $5187 a month–mostly for travel and entertainment–on their county cards

The biggest spender on Downing’s staff racked up $196,173 in credit card charges over an eight-month period which works out to about $24,522 a month.  None of that makes Downing blush.

“Not at all,” Downing said. “It makes me proud. This is exactly what we should be doing. That is an amazing investment when you consider what the return on that investment is every year.”

Downing tells 8 On Your Side that return on investment in tourism marketing is well worth it. He insists his globetrotting staff spends millions but generates billions with their efforts—not unlike spinning straw into gold, one glass of champagne at a time. Hors d’oeuvres, anyone?

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Sometimes a trip to the ballpark is just what’s in order to schmooze meeting planners, and it doesn’t even have to be our ballpark at Tropicana Field. Credit card records show CVB workers spent a total of about  $15,000 to entertain potential clients during a Colorado Rockies stadium event and another one at a Minnesota Twins game.

“These are very popular events,” Downing said. “How do we get their attention?  First we invite them to some place nice. This is sales 101.”

Spending thousands for a Napa Valley wine tour? No problem. “You gotta do it right,” Downing said.

And why did the CVB spend $20,000 for libation food and fun on a travel agent soiree in South Africa? Downing insists that’s what the group demanded in order to book their next year’s travel agent conference in St. Petersburg .

Downing insists that ever one of his CVB staff takes a class in the proper use of county credit cards and their expenditures on food, wine, and lodging across the globe are carefully vetted to prevent fraud and abuse. Besides, he says, the marketing money in question doesn’t come out of the pockets of Pinellas residents, unless, of course, they stay in a hotel or motel. “Everything we spend is paid for by tourists,” Downing said.

Downing says despite having a nearly limitless line of credit on his CVB staff credit cards, it’s increasingly difficult to compete with other venues that operate with more stealth, despite their use of public money. Just about every county in Florida that counts on tourism collects and spends bed tax dollars, some withn more trnasparency than others.

Hillsborough County’s Visit Tampa Bay organization, for example, cites trade secret protection and refuses to disclose its credit card records. Visit Tampa claims it is a private organization contracted by Hillsborough County Government to spend about $10 million bed tax dollars generated from Hillsborough visitors.

”You were able to get our (CVB) credit cards with a phone call,” Downing said. “That’s how Pinellas County chooses to operate in the Sunshine.”

The CVB has occasionally handed out $500 gift cards to random visitors checking into beach hotels to leave a lasting positive impression on tourists. But that’s chump change compared to what some other competitors do to attract visitors in the shark-filled waters of tourism promotion.

“There’s a destination I know of that offers leases on Mercedes Benzs to meetings planners,” Downing said.

That’s something Downing insists his CVB staff would not fund with bed tax dollars because it wouldn’t pass the sniff test.

“I have never seen anything as regulated and as many eyeballs looked at as a Pinellas County credit card,” Downing said. Now, he can add 8 On Your Side to that list.

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