SD Tourism Marketing District Draws Cheers, Jeers at City Hall

New forces have just joined the struggle over tens of millions of dollars a year in San Diego hotel-guest fees.
The city’s lodging industry says that money is its to spend -- on promoting San Diego as a tourist destination.
There are now four lawsuits in play involving San Diego's Tourism Marketing District.
It's an  industry trade group governed by the city's largest hotels, which have added a 2 percent surcharge to their guests' bills, to bankroll advertising campaigns to attract visitors.
"If we can't be out there talking about San Diego throughout the world and throughout the nation, like all the other major destinations do, there will be a major negative effect." Says Mike McDowell, CEO of the San Diego Lodging Industry Assn.
"Everybody says, 'We're San Diego, we're wonderful, just let 'em come’,” McDowell added during a Monday afternoon interview at City Hall.  “Well, we're still competing against San Francisco, Orlando, Las Vegas.  They all spend a significant amount of money to promote their destinations.  We need to do it as well."
McDowell was part of a delegation of hundreds of local visitor-industry interests that brought a show of force to the City Council’s chamber Monday, defending the district's controversial funding at an ‘informational-only’ hearing.
To sometimes thunderous applause and sustained cheering, speakers outlined an economic impact of $18.3 billion dollars a year that supports 160-thousand jobs, and a return on promotional investments -- running at an annual rate of $30 million -- of 19-to-1.
But critics say that hotel surcharge money is actually an illegal tax created by a private election among hotel owners, with the largest holding the most ‘weighted’ votes.
Mayor Filner has refused to sign a contract that would free up the funds for tourism marketing, without concessions that hotel owners have rejected.
Local 30 of Unite Here, which represents over 4-thousand hotel workers, convened a downtown news conference to announce a Superior Court lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate against the setup.
"I applaud Mayor Filner for standing up to the biggest bullies in this city, who think our money is their money,” Local 30 President Brigette Browning told reporters gathered on Civic Center Plaza.  “If they want to take us on, we're ready to do that.  We feel we're going to prevail, ultimately."
Asked about warnings that continued withholding of promotional funds will hurt tourism efforts, Browning declared: "Every one of those hotels have their own sales and marketing department.  And these are the same people that come out constantly saying government can't do as good a job as private industry.  If their sales department isn't doing a good job filling up their hotel, maybe they need to fire them and get a new sales team."
City officials will discuss how to handle the lawsuits behind closed doors on Tuesday.
One of the suits due for a court hearing next month, so the Tourism Marketing District has canceled a $3 million advertising campaign scheduled for April, targeting other cities.
It's already pulled the plug on $5.4 million in ads created for next month.
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