- Elizabeth Findell American-Statesman Staff
Visit Austin, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, will no longer use city funding to pay for alcohol, after criticism of its hefty client wine-and-dine tabs halted approval of its 2018 budget last month.
City Council Member Leslie Pool, who raised concerns after a story by KXAN-TV highlighted the marketing bureau’s entertainment expenditures, said Thursday that she’d worked with Visit Austin to resolve them. The council approved Visit Austin’s $17 million 2018 operating budget unanimously. Revisions are still being made to its marketing plan, Pool said.
The KXAN story pointed out Visit Austin spending over the last two years that included thousands of dollars in individual bar tabs, $15,000 in gift cards and $33,000 in tickets to concerts around the country by Lady Gaga, the Dixie Chicks, Adele, Beyoncé, Elton John and Paul McCartney.
Visit Austin staffers said that, as a marketing bureau, their jobs are to woo clients to book conventions in a music-oriented city with drinks, music and fun. Such expenditures are normal, they said.
The approved budget draws $14.8 million of its $17.1 million total budget from Austin hotel taxes, which are designated for expenditures that bring visitors to Austin.
The rest of Visit Austin’s budget comes from private funding, which it will use to pay its bar tabs from now on, its CEO, Tom Noonan, said in a letter to council members Tuesday. The bureau also will commit to highlighting only local Austin musicians, rather than the likes of Lady Gaga, when its representatives entertain clients, and it will welcome a 2018 performance audit.
Finally, Noonan said, the bureau plans to launch a foundation, funded through private revenue, to focus on workforce development for the music and tourism industries.
Meanwhile, a review of Visit Austin’s annual operations is ongoing and expected to come back for council approval in November. Pool said she expects substantial revisions.
“We’re not done,” she said. “But I needed to let them have their budget.”
The questions regarding Visit Austin operations have come amid a larger debate over Austin’s use of hotel taxes, which total more than $90 million annually. More than 70 percent of them go to the Austin Convention Center and Visit Austin—a slightly lower percentage than in previous years, after the council opted to shift 15 percent of the revenue toward parks and historic preservation. Also contentious is whether the convention center should be expanded.
Some have been skeptical of the convention center and its marketing, and are inclined to look at putting hotel taxes to other things. Others, including Mayor Steve Adler and the hotel industry, have praised Visit Austin as successful in drawing visitors and championed expansion of the convention center.
Council Member Alison Alter said she’d like to see the council learn more about Visit Austin’s everyday operations.
“Improved communication between council and this particular industry would be very valuable, in both directions,” Alter said, “so that we understand each other better and we don’t get to a point of (contention) during the budget.”