Thursday, May 30, 2024

Long Beach needs its visitors bureau—so what is, if any, the controversy surrounding the Long Beach Convention Center?

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So the Long Beach’s Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB)—they’re the entity created in 1982 to promote the city while bringing in conventions and tourism—is altering its structure. And that’s important for Long Beach to know because they bring in a lot (lot) of tourism and conventions that crowd our restaurants, our bars, our local businesses.

This will be, by no means, a fully comprehensive guide to how the CVB is bifurcating into two separate entities: On one hand, its marketing and cheerleading arm, Visit Long Beach, and its competitive, convention-scoring entity that will be Meet Long Beach. For context, the CVB is the nonprofit entity that has, since 1982, contracted with the city to market and sell it as a leisure travel and convention destination. So why the split?

The answer is quite simple: to keep Long Beach competitive. Historically, the CVB has been a private nonprofit entity, according to its VP Communications & Marketing, Samantha Mehlinger. While it provides annual and quarterly reporting to the city on its sales and marketing activities, it hasn’t been opened up to public records requests until just the past year, due to a change in legal opinion by the City Attorney.

That change puts it at a disadvantage to cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, which have private entities that handle convention sales, enabling them to keep business negotiations private. This is a no-brainer: when you’re bidding for a major event, you offer them incentives and hotel room rates to best out other cities—and if the competition found that information out because it was publicized, you’d be at a disadvantage.

To allow both sales and marketing activities to move forward in a competitive and ethical way, a new model was adopted—one that follows many other convention and tourism boards in other cities. The marketing agency, Visit Long Beach, remains open to public records requests (as it should, given it creates things like our holiday kick-off celebrations and decorations and local marketing tactics like videos and campaigns) and the latter, which handles convention sales with major events like ComplexCon and Anime Los Angeles, will remain private to protect sales tactics and client negotiations (as it also should, because they are bringing in multi-million conventions that also eye other places to take their convention to).

And, according to Mehlinger, the communications maestro at the CVB, this has been in the plans for a lengthy period of time—and will hit the council floor this upcoming Tuesday, when the CVB’s CEO Steve Goodling will argue why the bifurcation is necessary.

But first…

Why the CVB is one of the most essential (and profitable) entities for the city

The CVB has much to brag about when it comes to numbers—as in wildly brag.

It is not only one of the most respected convention centers amongst its peers—the entire bureau has been named Best in the West for seven consecutive years while the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center specifically has been named Best in the West six years consecutively at the prestigious Stella Awards—but it is an entity which brings in a lot of money to the city and its businesses. Its sales team, which is now being spun off into its own entity, is tasked with booking events at the convention center and booking their attendees at local hotels. The result is a huge boon for the city, filling hotels and dining rooms whenever a convention is in town. 

2023 has marked a wild year in numerical terms for the hospitality and tourism industry, thanks to the work of the CVB: the convention center saw the highest-ever revenue this year, and most events in a single year than ever before. This summer, Long Beach for the first time ever had a higher hotel room rate and occupancy than its biggest competition, San Diego.

The tax money drawn in from its hotel stays through its events and conventions? $37.5 million in 2023, a nearly 15% increase over 2022; that’s about seven times the amount the City of Long Beach pays the CVB out in its annual contract. This is largely money directly for the city; the CVB only gets 3% of that total.

One of the CVB’s entertainment and hosting areas—the Pacific Ballroom, which used to be The Arena and was transformed via a huge renovation and upgrades to its facilities when it reopened in 2013—has seen a stellar decade: According to a study by Kleinhenz Economics, the Ballroom’s estimated economic impact across the past decade has been $428 million. That’s not just for the government – that includes earnings by local small businesses, hotels and workers that benefit from tourism. Oh, and it cost $10 million to build.

Even its events that are strangely dismissed as frivolous by local press are some of our most profitable—like the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

“That event, which is open to the public, cost about $200,000 to put on—the tree lighting, fireworks, and the various decorations that stay around during the holidays,” Mehlinger said. “It brought with it 6,000 attendees for the lighting, garnering us over $200,000 in media coverage and $2.1 million in convention business from the clients we invited to the event.”

According to Mehlinger, special events in which clients are hosted — such as in a roped off area at the tree lighting, where they also invite elected officials to help them woo those clients by impressing them with how well the city’s various agencies work together — will remain public information, as they are included in the marketing budget of Visit Long Beach. Meet Long Beach’s budget, which she shared with Longbeachize, does not include any local special projects such as the tree lighting, pride kickoff, or July 4 fireworks. What Meet Long Beach aims to do is continue to sell the city to meetings planners while keeping their negotiations private — that is the only reason, and a necessary one, for keeping those records private. 

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Hence Visit Long Beach and Meet Long Beach, the bifurcation of the CVB facing City Council approval this week.

But the CVB is funded publicly—so why the privacy?

Long Beach is in a triad of one of the country’s most desirable and competitive convention markets, with Los Angeles to the immediate north and Anaheim to the immediate east, not to mention San Diego further south and San Francisco further north. In other words, California is a conventioneer’s dream—and competition is fierce.

Given that competition, the CVB’s convention portion of business has (and continues to be deemed so by the City of Long Beach’s city attorney) as under the protection of privacy from public records requests, or exempt from the Brown Act.

“There is a misconception that because the CVB receives public funds, it is an actual arm of the government or a public agency,” Mehlinger said. “I can understand the confusion, but the CVB is a private nonprofit that was formed by local business owners—and so is Meet Long Beach.”

It’s like the landscaping contracts—millions of dollars, mind you—that the City of Long Beach extends: Companies are asked to maintain the city’s landscaping and medians because those companies provide those specific unique services. That does not mean, however, those companies are open to public records requests.

And the CVB is altering its structure in response to a change in the perception of what is deemed “open to public record requests” and what is not.

“The change here is because there was a change in legal opinion, and that change puts our competitive edge at risk,” Mehlinger said. “Historically, the city attorney’s office has opined that the CVB was not subject to the Brown Act, because it did not meet the legal criteria of that law. It changed its decision in 2022, and while the reasoning is up for legal debate, it was decided that the best course of action was not to waste tax payer dollars arguing the matter in court, but instead to address the city’s needs in a way that would honor its requirements and wishes.”

After a meeting of “some great legal minds,” Mehlinger notes, and some very active CVB Board members and business leaders determined to find a solution, we now have Meet Long Beach, a private nonprofit that, in the words of Mehlinger, “is not formed in any way by the city, which allows it to keep its client information private.”

What does that mean in terms of transparency between Visit Long Beach and Meet Long Beach?

Visit Long Beach, as it is now named, is the old CVB (sans sales for conventions). Its services include marketing and communications, and yes, it is subject to the Brown Act.

“Its [the CVB’s] Board remains intact and it will continue to oversee the Tourism Business Improvement Area and receive 3% of transient occupancy tax as its primary funding source,” Mehlinger said. “Its primary services are marketing and communications, which includes things like advertising, online content marketing, and hosting clients to market the city and its venues, attractions, and things to do. It is operating under the Brown Act.”

This translates specifically into:

  • Quarterly updates to the City, including social media tracking, website analytics, and traditional media tracking
  • A website which is dedicated to information it can publicly provide, including budgets, annual reports, and Board and leadership contacts

Meet Long Beach: Because it was formed by private parties without the involvement of the city, it is not open to public records requests. This structure was formed to protect client negotiations; however, the agency has committed to robust public reporting about its financials and activities.

“Meet Long Beach’s primary task is to sell the city as a convention destination—and it is hiring the former sales team at the CVB to accomplish this task,” Mehlinger said. “Because its contract with the City of Long Beach mainly covers the cost of the team itself, Visit Long Beach is contracting with Meet Long Beach to provide sales marketing services in various markets across the US. And by that, I mean trade show attendance, familiarization tours, and client events.”

Public reporting translates specifically into: 

  • Monthly updates to the City, including number of room nights being booked and convention sales;
  • Quarterly updates to the City, including a showing of financials, trade shows attended, events for clients, and any leads on potential convention business
  • A website which is dedicated to information it can publicly provide, including budgets, annual reports, and Board and leadership contacts

Is there really a controversy behind their spending?

Yes, there was a very expensive cake brought up by local press at a party that—heaven forbid!—had a limited invite list, which local press has a coronary over. (As a former journalist, I personally understand the ravenous nature with which we would attend events which promised free booze and food—and lacking that invite would likely cause a reciprocated lack of Feeling Cool.) 

And by the way, just because actual invites were limited, doesn’t mean the public was not allowed. Mehlinger noted that while a few events weren’t publicized, members of the public were welcome to check them out—and they did.

But money for furniture updates to court clients? Money for holiday decorations? Money that is literally proven to be returned back to the city in multiple-fold? It is wild this is even a concern. Even the City of Long Beach itself agrees after an audit: There was no wrong-doing.

Let’s just be frank here: We’re a major city in one of the world’s leading tourism destinations—SoCal—and we need to act like it.

We. Need. To. Act. Like. It.

That means top-tier conventions and, yes, giving our residents something to be proud of, including fireworks, Christmas tree lightings, and other indulgences that remind us we’re humans who enjoy nice things in our city. Shockingly, we don’t want to be meandering a cold, concrete metropolis where our Convention Center attempts to lure in ComplexCon with folding chairs on the sidewalk and the sole sense of holiday cheer we have is one we have to imagine like Tiny Tim.

Accountability? Absolutely; the CVB has never hid anything and they continue to oblige by what the City of Long Beach tells them to oblige by. We should expect nothing less from a city contractor. But seriously, stop complaining about the furniture and holiday decorations when the investment is returned in absurd amounts and there are numbers to prove that; you look like you’re grinding a spoon.

Editor’s note: Brian Addison has been a contracted food and architecture photographer and influencer for Visit Long Beach. Here are some varying examples of work he has done for the CVB.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

12 COMMENTS

  1. It sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors to me. Breaking down the convention and visitors. Bureau into two entities one that is not subject to scrutiny because it is not a public entity? Does this organization pay rent to the city for use of the facilities do all the other cities mentioned have two separate esses Like Long Beach is trying to form? That leaves a lot more questions than it gives answers considering that there is a long history of obfuscation. This does not make me comfortable.

    • This is to protect the convention sales competition while, per the city attorney’s request, opening up the other parts of the CVB to public records. Before that request from the city attorney, the CVB never fell under the Brown Act; that altered when the city attorney altered its opinion and the CVB is complying.

  2. Every major city has at least one agenda pushing, self-promoting hack that masquerades as a journalist… but the thing that makes Long Beach special is none of those other cities have a hack that writes as poorly as Brian Addison

    • The fact you took time to do this warms my heart. And I am not a journalist; I am a writer. Appreciate the love and support—thanks for reading!

  3. Its a slippery slope as this has played out numerous times in college sports recruitment as well. Fraud occurs. Its a given any time money is involved. I understand keeping negotiated perks private for convention projects the CVB brings in – up to a point. Tax payers have right to see where our money is going and what the return on that investment is. We also have a right to know that the CVB is adhering to equal opportunity rights when giving out favors and perks for convention business.

    • The CVB is hardly college football, and as Brian stated, the arm that will be receiving public funds will be subject to the Brown Act! A slippery slope cannot exist when no slope is present.

  4. What a joke. I’ve lived here over 30 years and have NEVER heard a single person say, “What Long Beach needs is top-tier conventions!” I’ve heard plenty of people say the city should spend their money making LB better for its residents, not hypothetical tourists, though. This kind of puff piece/love letter/journalistic brown-nosing is shameful. Long Beach would get along just fine without having some money-wasting suit lavishing taxpayer money on nonsense.

    • The numbers on the TOT tax return to the City this year is over $37M when the taxpayers handed over about $5M to the CVB for their entirely annual budget but sure, continue calling it some ‘money-wasting suit lavishing taxpayer money on nonsense.’ Pretty sure if that $37M were to suddenly disappear from next year’s budget, slashing, say, the arts or small business loans or free activities for families, you would suddenly want to know why we don’t have it…

    • Great selfish attitude! Why don’t we just give all of our convention business to LA and San Diego and see what happens to the thousands of hotel workers in our city. The Grand Prix, events and conventions bring in real people and real dollars. If you have ever walked around downtown between February and November, you’ve probably seen people wearing convention badges at restaurants on Pine Avenue, out and about on the promenade or Shoreline Village. Convention dollars are real Gerhsrd, they keep businesses open and workers employed, oh and some of that money does make it to City Hall where it is spent on the citizens of Long Beach.

  5. Brian
    My favorite newsletter is Longbeachize! I now look forward to each new edition every week. I’ve learned so much about this City and I was born, raised, and lived in until 1974 just before my 21st birthday. I then moved back to Long Beach in 1998.
    I also appreciate your artistic talent that comes through in a lot of your photography. Thank you!

  6. Brian:
    This was a great article. Well done.
    I usually do not opine, but in this case, I will break my own rule.
    First, Steve Goodling and his team and the CVB are the best in the business and would be welcomed with open arms in markets that would be lucky enough to recruit them. Without leadership, things fall apart.
    Secondly, The economic impact on the City of Long Beach dwarfs any investment to this organization. Simply put, conventions and conventioneer dollars underpin the hospitality industry in the City and, in turn, underpin the entire city.

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