San Diego Hoteliers Meet Their Waterloo
What’s really at stake is who is going to run our city — our elected leaders, or the hoteliers?
Politically and philosophically, I do not always see eye to eye with Mayor Bob Filner. However, in this case, the mayor is absolutely correct in challenging the “hotelier cabal” that has been silently running San Diego for years. The situation is reminiscent of what necessitated federal anti-trust laws to protect citizens and free enterprise from predatory and abusive monopolies. You see, the hoteliers’ domain of control in San Diego is widespread and extends to the Tourism Marketing District (TMD), Tourism Authority (formerly the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau), Convention Center, 2015 centennial celebration, numerous political figures, as well as many civic entities if you know for which the board-member names to look. They use TMD “taxpayer” monies to promote their for-profit interests while claiming them to be synonymous with San Diego’s civic interests. They employ shallow marketing campaigns often with detrimental residual value to San Diego, such as “Happy Happens” — a direct play off the slang “Shit Happens” — what marketing person in their right mind would subliminally and contextually associate our beautiful city to “shit”?
The abuse and damage this cabal has inflicted upon San Diego is extensive; the time has come to pull back the curtain and reveal the truth. Here are but two examples: First: Instead of building a compelling, long-term brand and message for San Diego, the hoteliers (via the TMD and Tourism Authority) have repeatedly and shortsightedly embraced superficial marketing campaigns to fill their hotel rooms for the next quarter. Consider the years and millions of TMD taxpayer dollars the hoteliers have spent running this show — is there even one lasting San Diego message or image we can point to that will help drive people to San Diego over the long-term? Perhaps something along the lines of New York’s “Big Apple” and “I Love NY,” or Las Vegas’ “Sin City” and “What Happens Here, Stays Here”? Sadly, no. Instead, we are saddled with the likes of “Happy Happens,” “Hey! Sheer Bliss Is Calling” and “Yooo Hooo, Big Smiles Are Calling.” The lack of creativity and vision is deafening.
The hoteliers silently (though actively behind the scenes) seek to stifle all non-hotelier marketing efforts to promote San Diego, no matter how compelling or visionary. Any such effort is seen as a competitive threat to “their” TMD honey pot and fiefdom, and they seek to kill it.
Because their self-interest in filling hotel rooms is directly involved, the hoteliers should be the last people put in charge of taxpayer money with respect to San Diego’s image and marketing. Since when do we entrust private enterprise with taxpayer monies and expect them to put the greater community good in front of their financial self-interest? This is not to suggest that filling hotel rooms is not important. It is. Nor is it to suggest that hotelier input should not be considered. It should. But rather, this is to suggest that we can (se puede) and should be building a compelling, long-term brand and message for San Diego (a bilingual one) while at the same time promoting tourism and filling hotel rooms. These are not mutually exclusive concepts as the hoteliers would have you believe; they are complimentary.
Second: The state of San Diego’s 2015 centennial celebration, or, rather, lack thereof, is the direct result of a hotelier power grab. Let me explain; I authored three op-eds (two in U-T San Diego and one in VOSD) outlining a visionary approach for our centennial. The articles prompted many civic leaders and Balboa Park aficionados to give the ideas significant attention, and many encouraged me to be a participant in the planning. Simultaneously, however, the TMD gave $300,000 as seed capital to the centennial organization. In reality, this donation was the hoteliers buying the centennial on the cheap (ironically, with taxpayer money), and stacking its board with their people. Remembering my prior refusal to heel to their on-high wishes to end the “City of Life,” the hoteliers promptly froze me and my proposed ideas out of the centennial.
In December 2011, Mark Germyn resigned as CEO of the centennial. Bill Haviluk and I saw that the centennial was in deep trouble, and we promptly put our hat in the ring to apply for the position. Our stated goal was to build a spectacular big vision centennial that would be remembered for decades — and, fortunately, there was still narrowly enough time to put it together. We offered our services as a team, or individually, if preferred — me, with passion and visionary centennial ideas, and Haviluk, with vast experience and know-how.
Astonishingly, the centennial board leadership never responded to our multiple inquiries. Haviluk, one of the most experienced theme park operators in America with an expertise in attracting large numbers of people and accommodating them in event settings, didn’t even warrant a call back? We even had esteemed civic leader Malin Burnham listed as our main reference, with his permission to do so. Instead, hotelier lobbyist and front man Mike McDowell (with no experience in this realm) was suddenly hired as CEO of the centennial, with hotelier Terry Brown (chairman of the TMD) signing on to pay half of McDowell’s $200,000 salary and benefits package. An audacious conflict of interest to be sure, but who would dare question the hotelier’s motives in “their” town? Clearly, the event was no longer a San Diego or Balboa Park centennial; it was now a “hotelier centennial,” where filling hotel rooms, especially in the difficult off-season, would be the priority.
What do hoteliers and lobbyists (specifically the ones in charge of our centennial) know about putting together a high volume theme park or celebration? Not much, it turns out, and they are scurrying away from their Waterloo as fast as they can: 1) McDowell just resigned as CEO to go back to work for Brown and the hotelier lobby (as if he hadn’t been all along); 2) No big plans have been put in place for the centennial, and, tragically, time is now too short to put together most of the big visions I and others had previously proposed; 3) The centennial has been named Edge 2015, more akin to a Gillette Razor ad campaign; 4) There is effectively no money raised (despite McDowell’s claims the centennial would be a $30-to-$50-million event); and 5) Adding insult to injury, a Los Angeles firm has been hired to produce “our” San Diego centennial. (The collapse of Irwin Jacobs’ plan for Balboa Park is a separate issue entirely; however, you can bet the hoteliers will try using it as a scapegoat for the centennial disaster they created.)
What should be a grand San Diego centennial celebration in 2015 is now, at best, likely to be a yawner, at worst a civic embarrassment. And, of course, San Diego still lacks a compelling, long-term brand and message to project on the world stage. Thank you, hoteliers.
The Filner versus hotelier fight is bigger and more important than meets the eye. What’s really at stake is who is going to run our city — our elected leaders, or the hoteliers? Will we be a city of ideas and vision, or a city ruled by the silent hand of a visionless cabal? Make no mistake; the civic soul of San Diego is hanging in the balance.
Good luck in your hunt, Mr. Mayor. In this case, your aim is true.
George Mullen is spearheading the civic effort to bring a world-class image to San Diego as the City of Life (Ciudad de Vida). He is an artist, writer and occasional economist with StudioRevolution.com in downtown San Diego. He is a native and welcomes feedback at email@example.com.
Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.