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Tuesday, Feb 7, 2023
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Convention Center Mum on Event Planner Firm

Several destination management companies asked by the San Diego Convention Center Corp. to submit initial proposals , basically a show of interest , to be a “preferred” vendor in exchange for a commission protested the plan by banding together to abstain from the process.

They informed the agency of their stance in a letter that spelled out their reasons.

Meanwhile, the Convention Center Corp. changed the description of the post it wanted to fill from that of destination management company to the more narrow “special event and production services company” and entered into negotiations with one firm, said Fred Sainz, the agency’s vice president of public affairs.

The winning bidder may have capabilities in both realms, but it was decided, Sainz said, that the need was not just for a destination management company.

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Destination management firms act as local representatives for out-of-town meeting planners making arrangements for parties, tours, speakers and ancillary events related to conventions.

Patti Roscoe, chairwoman of PRA Destination Management, said she and representatives of six other firms objected to the call for a preferred destination management firm because it would have given one an unfair advantage over the others.

She also said that none of the firms solicited were made aware that the plan changed. A production services company, she said, is one that focuses primarily on special events and booking talent, not tours and parties. The Convention Center Corp, she added, wants a production services firm that is also bonded to book talent, she added.


There Was Interest

Roscoe said it is likely she and others would have been interested in having a preferred status as a production services provider, but they don’t have that chance.

“We were told by the Convention Center Corp. that our letter (of protest) constituted a submittal and now the process is closed,” Roscoe said. “It’s a Catch-22. We protested one plan. The plan changed without our knowledge, but now we can’t submit a proposal.”

Roscoe said she and other firms met with Convention Center Corp. officials, including Catherine Laue, its procurement manager, on Nov. 10, at the agency’s request. When the business representatives argued that changing the game plan in midstream was unfair, the response they got, Roscoe said, was that the agency had that right.

“They said, ‘We reserve the right to make changes at any time,'” Roscoe said. “Well, it may have been in the fine print, but it was not done ethically or in good faith.”

Fred Sainz, the Convention Center Corp.’s vice president of public affairs, declined to give the name of the firm with which it is negotiating, citing a policy barring such information from being made public before a review by its nine-member board.

Sainz also declined to say how many firms were solicited for a show of interest in the post. He would not give the names of those who responded or the total number of respondents.


Ten Firms Initially Interested

The deadline for a show of interest in the post was Oct. 28. One industry insider said that 10 firms were originally solicited. Another supplied the San Diego Business Journal with a copy of the Oct. 27 protest letter.

“We believe that the expected financial commitment required by the preferred agreement will not allow us to fully participate in citywide events, familiarization trips and other local promotions with the SDCCC, CVB (San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau) and hotels as we have in the past,” the letter stated. “Conversely, if not selected, we will be less motivated to participate in the same events if the potential business generated by these marketing activities will favor one DMC entity over another.”


Signing The Letter

The letter was submitted by representatives of Access Destination Services, Arrangements Unlimited, Destination Concepts, PGI/TBA, PRA Destination Management, the Event Team and the Meeting Manager.

Deborah Martin, chief operating officer of the PRA Destination Management, said she questions the ethics of a nonprofit, public benefit corporation that operates the 2.6 million-square-foot, city-owned Convention Center giving a preferential status to a services firm in exchange for a commission. She also said she questions whether the Convention Center Corp. had a large enough field of qualified applicants from which to choose “the best qualified,” since most that were solicited bowed out.

Sainz said that giving one company a preferred status was no different than the vendor relationships it has with a variety of local firms, including those that supply audiovisual, lighting, catering and security services.

“There is a precedent,” Sainz said.

The protest letter by the seven firms further stated: “We understand as public spending and allocations for SDCCC are reduced, SDCCC must find other revenue sources to support operating costs and must depend on the private sector for replacement funding and marketing.

“The best service we can offer SDCCC is our support and collaboration to bring more business to San Diego. By way of this objective, we ask the SDCCC be open to discussing a more collaborative relationship with the local DMCs so that together we can focus on joint marketing opportunities and more consistent service levels when operating events at the Convention Center.”

Sainz acknowledged that there is a profit motive involved in the agency’s plan, but he stressed that the main reason for wanting a preferred vendor is to ensure client satisfaction.

“We are doing this because we truly think it’s in the best interest of our clients,” Sainz said.

He also insisted that the agency intends to maintain a good relationship with local destination management companies.

“The Convention Center is an open shop in that regard,” Sainz said. “We will continue to treat them (destination management companies) the same.”

The percentage of gross sales that the preferred firm would pay as a commission to the Convention Center would depend on the outcome of the negotiations, Sainz said.

He said he could not estimate the value of such an arrangement to the Convention Center Corp. nor to the company that wins the bid. But if negotiations with the current prospect fall through, another would be sought, he added.

Said Roscoe: “The San Diego Convention Center announced it will be on the cutting edge of this,” Roscoe said. “It will be on the cutting edge of trying to squeeze money out of small companies. Everybody wants a piece of the client’s dollar.”

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