Way of picking BACVA chief called flawed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The process to select a new chief executive to run Baltimore's beleaguered convention and visitors bureau is seriously flawed, heightening the odds that the wrong person will be hired for the job, national experts say.

To begin with, those experts say, the atmosphere has been soiled by the decision to have its ousted top executive, Carroll R. Armstrong, help choose his successor.

Even more troubling, the search for a top executive has been launched without the search committee knowing the details of what is believed to be a critical report on the organization's day-to-day operations.

"If you don't know the pluses and minuses of where the organization is going and you are on a search committee, how do you know who to hire?" asks James B. Groner, president and chief executive of J.B. Groner Executive Search Inc. in Claymont, Del.

"It is like trying to drive a car with blinders on. It is not a good scenario."

The state- and city-financed Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association is responsible for attracting conventions, trade shows and business. As such, the association largely determines the success of the convention center and is regarded as critical to the city's multimillion-dollar tourism industry.

Although the report has been out for weeks, the association's senior search committee members see no need to know its contents to make an informed decision.

"I don't see where it [the report] would be relevant to the search for a new executive," said Robert L. Steele III, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore and co-chair of the search committee. "I don't see where I would need to [see it]."

City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh, who sits on the association's board and co-chairs the search committee, said the group would look for someone who knows the industry and has sales and marketing experience.

"I think we know what best works in this type of position," Pugh said. "It is like knowing what you want. I think we all on the board pretty much agree that we want somebody who is going to be able to come in and hit the ground running."

But they couldn't be more wrong, industry experts said.

Experts in the convention industry as well as in executive recruitment said merely gauging candidates by their sales and marketing skills and industry knowledge is too limiting.

The search committee, they said, must know every detail about the convention association - its problems, strengths and goals - to ask the right questions and make an informed decision.

Failure to know those details increases the chances of hiring the wrong person, experts said.

Its search for a new chief executive comes as the association faces a deepening convention crisis: Bookings for hotel rooms in the first half of this fiscal year have plunged 62 percent from a year ago; the convention center's operating deficit is swelling, and is expected to nearly double this fiscal year and continue to increase in fiscal 2004.

The center has failed to generate the number of conventions, trade shows and attendance promised six years ago by supporters of a $151 million expansion.

Now the city is proceeding with plans to spend millions of dollars on a new convention headquarters hotel, although there is wide skepticism that a hotel would solve the acute problems of the convention complex.

If the evaluation of the association's operations was thorough, experts have said it would have analyzed those and other issues. So it's vital that the search committee knows how applicants would respond to those problems, experts said.

"If you don't have a clear understanding of what the problems are, you can't have a fair and impartial determination of the skill sets of the candidates," said Speros A. Batistatos, owner of Destination Development Group, a convention and hospitality consulting firm in Chicago.

"Given that process, the chances of picking the wrong person are very high. You've got a process that by its sheer design is going to err on the side of failure. The whole process sounds to me like it's going to be very difficult to get the right person for Baltimore."

Groner said that if he was a search committee member and didn't understand the convention and visitors association's problems, "I shouldn't be on that board."

"That search team needs to have access to everything," he added. "They need to be the ones to know the good, bad and ugly. You are setting up the next seven years, maybe 10 years, maybe 12 years."

But the experts go even further. They insist that every candidate to succeed Armstrong be provided with the details of the evaluation report.

"I don't see how the search committee would be fair to any candidate without sharing the report," said George G. Fenich, professor in the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration at the University of New Orleans.

"'Now that you are hired, by the way, let us show you this dirt.' You want your candidate to be as knowledgeable as possible about the situation that they are coming to deal with."

The association has refused to release the contents of the report, and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has pledged an "open, honest and transparent government," has not ordered the report released to the public. The mayor appoints the association's board and his chief of staff is its chairman. No new head of the association will be selected without the mayor's blessing.

Another problem, experts say, is Armstrong's continued role with the association.

On Jan. 23, Armstrong announced plans to resign, effective Feb. 1, after spending seven years as the association's president and CEO.

Two months earlier, The Sun reported that association officials were unhappy with Armstrong's performance and were privately developing a plan to replace him.

To put a good face on the decision, a "soft landing" was crafted that kept him on as a "special consultant" to the association's board. He also was named a member of the search committee that will help choose his successor.

Experts are critical of the decision to keep Armstrong as a member of the search committee. They insist that his presence will prevent full and honest discussions of the association's problems.

"The possibility for there to be a misinterpretation by prospective interviewees far outweighs the benefit of having any former CEO in the room in most cases," Batistatos said.

"You can't have a candid discussion as a candidate and a board with an elephant in the room. They see Carroll there, they know he was asked to leave, but they see him across the table making a decision. That sends mixed signals about the board's communication style."

Industry experts are also bewildered by the size of the search committee - 20 members.

Pugh, its co-chair, acknowledges that the panel is large and that a group of about five will conduct interviews with the candidates.

With the tourism and convention industry struggling nationwide, experts said, it is crucial that Baltimore makes the right decision when it selects the next person to run the association. So far, they aren't optimistic.

"They don't know what's in the report, they don't know what kind of person they're looking for to fix whatever the problems were," said Jack Craver, president of Jack Craver Co., a hospitality consulting firm in Lancaster, Pa.

"It's like trying to reach a destination without a road map."

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