Cyclocross Nationals, USA Cycling National Championships, Xterra Trail Running Championships, the recent governor's conference on tourism and soon the National Beard and Moustache Championships (not a misprint). It's hard to catalogue the list of accomplishments of Visit Bend, the city's publicly funded tourism promotion agency, over the past year or so.
It's an impressive list of achievements particularly in light of the dismal tourism economy that has seen vacancies rising at most area hotels and resorts.
Many observers have attributed Visit Bend's recent success to CEO and President Doug LaPlaca, a former ski industry executive who took over the helm of Visit Bend after a rocky patch for the non-profit organization that saw the forced departure of its former CEO, Mike Glover.
Not everybody, however, is lining up to pat Visit Bend on the back. One of the city's most prominent hoteliers, Wayne Purcell, owner of the Riverhouse Resort and Convention Center, recently made an impromptu appeal to the city council to rein in Visit Bend and CEO LaPlaca, whom Purcell described as attempting to strong-arm the Riverhouse and other hotels into advertising in Visit Bend's tourism magazine. Purcell said Visit Bend was withholding "leads," basically enquiries from prospective visitors, from lodging properties that didn't do business with Visit Bend.
It's an allegation that Visit Bend strongly denies, but it underscores a widening public rift between Bend's primary tourism promotion agency and one of the city's most influential hoteliers who happens to operate the city's largest convention center, a 30,000-square-foot meeting complex on the banks of the Deschutes River that was designed to help drive lucrative group meeting traffic to Bend.
The most recent flap is the most public dust-up between Purcell and Visit Bend, but a series of disputes has been simmering over the past year, prompting Purcell to appeal at least twice to the city council to intervene. Purcell's appearance, however, was notable for its public call-out and Visit Bend's quick and strongly worded response, which was sent out to media outlets via Visit Bend's public relations firm, DVA Advertising.
Several board members who spoke with The Source said they felt blindsided by Purcell's tactic and his tone.
"We were extremely surprised. Not only in the timing, but the content, which we feel was just inaccurate. They're false accusations," said Ben Perle, the manager of the new Oxford Hotel in downtown Bend who also serves as vice chair of the Visit Bend's board of directors.
Perle said he takes exception to Purcell's comments because the organization has a process for addressing grievances, which he said Purcell did not follow. The by-laws specify that concerns should be brought directly to the board. Perle said Purcell short-circuited the process by going to the city council, which has indirect oversight over Visit Bend.
Perle said this is part of a pattern of Purcell asking for special treatment from Visit Bend. Perle said he takes exception to Purcell's tactic because he puts the Riverhouse's interest above the interests of the organization and the rest of the tourism economy.
"My personal view is that there is no room for financial gain or financial interest on any board," Perle said. "I'm on the board to serve the greater good of the tourism industry, not steer business to my hotel... We don't think that's Mr. Purcell's agenda."
The strong words from both sides are indicative of how the relationship between Visit Bend and the Riverhouse has deteriorated over the past several years. Underlying the friction is a debate about just how much Visit Bend is doing to promote the Riverhouse's new convention center. Purcell highlighted his concerns and what he says could be missed opportunities to recruit more convention business in a series of direct appeals to the city council last year. At the time Purcell was pushing to have the eight-person Visit Bend board expanded to include someone from Purcell's staff - something that the board had included as recently as 2008 when Purcell's director of sales, Ron Botts, served as treasurer.
After several of the board members weighed in opposing a change to the board's format, the issue was dropped. But friction between Purcell and Visit Bend remained. By June, the Riverhouse and tourism officials were on opposite sides of a heated debate over a meal deduction that allowed hotels to deduct up to $40 for meals when calculating room taxes. By some accounts the city was losing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in annual room tax revenue, money that goes to support basic services like police and fire as well as Visit Bend's tourism promotion efforts. After studying the issue, city staff, who had watched tourism revenues slip from a high of $2.4 million in fiscal year 2007-2008 to a projected $1.79 million this year, recommended that the city do away with the meal deduction. Visit Bend endorsed the change. Purcell objected, saying at the time that it would make local hotels less competitive in a tough economy.
For his part, Purcell said that any discussion of room taxes is essentially a red herring. Rather, Purcell said he is motivated solely by a concern that Visit Bend is pushing an advertising package on hotels that might not have the resources.
"Where is the nexus between display ads and the leads that are being generated through their website and the marketing that is being done?" Purcell asked.
LaPlaca wouldn't comment on the organization or his relationship with Wayne Purcell, but he said that the discussion of enquiries ought to be a non-issue. In the two and half years that LaPlaca has been at the helm, he said that only one property has asked for the database of visitor enquiries and that was the Riverhouse. Visit Bend provided that information at no cost.
While a $1,000 may not be a significant cost to a larger organization like the Riverhouse, it can be a barrier to smaller properties, Purcell said. He referred The Source to the 20-room Pine Ridge Inn on Bend's west side where General Manager Addie Case confirmed that her property would be prohibited from advertising in the Visit Bend guide and thus accessing the visitor database.
"Advertising is just too expensive, if we could purchase leads at seven cents and then when we hit our budget say "stop," it would allow me to control it instead of them controlling it," Case said.
It looks as if this issue, however, may be resolved. On Monday, Visit Bend changed course and decided to offer local hotels and tourism businesses acccess to the database of leads for $.07 per name, the same rate that the Central Oregon Visitors Assocation charges its paid members. But don't expect that to be the last volley in this verbal scuffle. The city is currently working on a room tax audit of several properties, including the Riverhouse, to ensure they are complying with the city's regulations. That work is expected to be complete in the next month.