AUSTIN (KXAN) — City Council is set to approve the Austin Convention and Visitor Bureau’s budget and marketing plan, following a two-week postponement to address concerns about the organization’s spending on entertainment, dining and gifts.
KXAN first reported on spending at ACVB, officially called Visit Austin, in late September. A line-item review of two years of American Express credit card statements and receipts found Visit Austin charged nearly a half million dollars on booze, dining, parties, gift cards and jewelry in that time period. All of the credit card receipts were paid with public hotel occupancy taxes, Visit Austin told KXAN. Visit Austin said locals, unless they stay in an Austin hotel, do not pay the hotel occupancy taxes that are levied on customer hotel bills.
Visit Austin purchased 75 Lady Gaga tickets at venues outside Texas at a cost of over $18,000, among other concerts; it also paid $6,317 in one night for more than 500 alcoholic beverages at Antone’s night club. In addition, the nonprofit’s employees bought $5,000 in prepaid American Express and Visa gift cards for clients and more than $10,000 in Kendra Scott jewelry gift cards.
Visit Austin CEO Tom Noonan said the organization has had an excellent return on the nearly $500,000 investment, including “217,000 definite hotel room nights with an overall economic impact of $150 million,” according to a prepared statement Noonan sent to City Council following KXAN’s report.
Julie Hart, Visit Austin’s chief financial officer, said the amount of businesses and money the nonprofit brings to town far exceeds the organization’s spending. Visit Austin has also had “10 straight years of flawless audits” and it has put itself through a “very rigorous accreditation process,” she added.
At a Sept. 29 Austin City Council meeting, some council members said they were skeptical of the need to spend that much on parties, and they were concerned about the organization’s transparency. Council was set to approve the nonprofit’s budget and marketing plan at that meeting, but it voted to postpone the approval for two weeks to take a closer look at the expenditures. City Council Member Leslie Pool said she wanted a city audit done on the organization.
“I understand the argument that that is what the industry does,” said council member Ann Kitchen, regarding Visit Austin’s spending. “But that is not really the question, from my perspective. My perspective is from the City of Austin. What do we think is appropriate for the use of those public dollars?”
Others on the City Council, including Jimmy Flannigan, expressed concern over the abrupt pause of Visit Austin’s budget and how it could affect staff.
“This is not property taxes. This is not sales taxes,” Flannigan said. “Everyone in every other major city does it this way. It even says it in the article. This is not public tax dollars. These are taxes on hotel rooms. It is a substantively different animal. I do not support postponement.”
Several local hotel executives, including general managers of the W Hotel and Hilton downtown, spoke in favor of approving the budget and said Visit Austin is a critical generator of business in the city.
“They do an absolutely incredible job of marketing the city, better than any I have worked with at previous locations during my career,” said Drew McQuade, general manager of the W Hotel.
Visit Austin’s expenditures fall in line with other visitor bureaus in the state, according to correspondence with bureaus in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
City Council is expected to address Visit Austin’s budget this afternoon around 2 p.m.
KXAN’s City Reporter Kylie McGivern will update this story during the meeting.
Source: Lady Gaga