Will a $300K consultant fix Santa Clara’s tourism woes?

Santa Clara is mulling whether to pay a consultant $300,000 to create a tourism strategy for the city, a move scrutinized by several city councilmembers given the city’s questionable history of hiring expensive consultants.

“It’s starting to look more like wasteful spending,” said Santa Clara Councilmember Anthony Becker. “I’d rather see available funds spent on marketing and promotion.”

The Santa Clara City Council on Tuesday considered paying two consultants from commercial real estate firm Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL) to work with the city’s newly-established visitors bureau to create a “comprehensive tourism strategy,” including first-year goals and an action plan for the next three to five years. After a debate, the proposal was unanimously deferred to a future council meeting.

Dan Fenton and Bethanie DeRose from JLL would each be paid roughly $275 an hour to develop the tourism strategy, according to city documents, until Dec. 31, 2023. Fenton was the CEO of Team San Jose from 1996 through 2010, and received criticism for his role in that group’s operating losses, which were subsidized by the city of San Jose.

The consultants’ duties would include working with the city’s visitors bureau to create a staffing and marketing plan, a process for soliciting branding and marketing services and acting as an advisor to the visitors bureau. The consultants would also review the Santa Clara Convention Center’s monthly and quarterly financial reports and provide operational support.

Becker questioned whether to entrust Fenton with improving tourism in Santa Clara.

“Mr. Fenton’s past record operating a convention center… is highly questionable,” Becker said. “I will not be supporting this.”

Santa Clara City Councilmember Anthony Becker waved a stack of news stories while voicing his concern over the city’s proposed hiring of Dan Fenton. Screenshot by Sonya Herrera, courtesy of the City of Santa Clara.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor asked Becker whether he had any issues with JLL’s performance in Santa Clara. The city hired the firm, including Fenton, in 2017 to create a new operating model for the Santa Clara Convention & Visitors Bureau, which was formerly managed by the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce, and now run by the Destination Marketing Organization. The city paid JLL $170,000 for those services.

Becker said that while he’s heard good things about Fenton, he does not see much in the way of returns from the city’s investment in JLL.

“This has been a problem that’s been going on before COVID,” Becker said. “Seeing that we’ve been consistently spending this money, I just don’t think it’s something that’s working, and I think we’re going down the same path that San Jose did.”

Councilmember Raj Chahal agreed, adding he had voted against the city’s contract with JLL in early 2020.

“We have been availing services from JLL since 2017,” Chahal said. “There was a clear, defined project which was time-bound… and they did not finish it. And despite not finishing it… we renewed that contract. Two times, we renewed that contract.”

Chahal said the city should give Matt Stewart, who began working as CEO of the city’s new visitors bureau in November, a chance to demonstrate his expertise.

Gillmor, who supported the lucrative contract, said the city does not have in-house staff with expertise in boosting tourism. If the council decides not to approve a consulting contract with JLL, the mayor warned, the city will need to estimate costs for obtaining these services elsewhere.

“If we’re going to manage these assets properly, we have to get professional help,” Gillmor said, referring to the city’s biggest tourist draws, such as Levi’s Stadium and the Santa Clara Convention Center. “JLL has given us that professional help.”

The debate over the contract Tuesday comes after Santa Clara faced scrutiny over six-figure public relations contracts with Singer Associates. An investigation found the city’s bidding process flouted the city’s code and industry best practices.

Councilmember Kathy Watanabe made a motion to consider the $300,000 consulting contract again at a future meeting so councilmembers could review the city’s contracts with JLL.

“Through Mr. Fenton’s work, there has been a positive overhaul of the use of the Convention Center,” Watanabe said. “It’s been a phenomenal change over the last couple of years.”

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