UPDATE: Convention leaders prepare for business without Welsh

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New Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association Chairman Michael Browning is hitting the ground running.

Browning, who took over as ICVA chairman Jan. 1 for Jerry Semler, is busy this week developing an interim plan to keep the organization moving forward without departing CEO Don Welsh as well as launching a search for Welsh’s replacement.

Browning spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in meetings with ICVA’s senior staff to discuss the organization’s leadership in the wake of Welsh’s departure, which was announced late Monday. Browning was not available for comment.

Browning, sources said, told ICVA staffers that he would look within and outside the organization for Welsh’s replacement. The ICVA has a history of stability with its top post, with only four CEOs since 1978.

don welshWelsh

Welsh, who is paid a base annual salary of $280,000 and is eligible for $56,000 in performance incentives, is leaving at the end of January to become CEO of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau. There, Welsh will oversee the 2.7 million-square-foot McCormick Place, the nation’s largest convention center.

The Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau will pay Welsh  $390,000 annually, with the potential to earn up to $78,000 more if growth objectives are met. Outgoing Chicago CEO Tim Roby  received a salary and bonus package of $362,652, of which $260,540 was base salary, bureau officials said. The remainder was incentive bonus and pay for unused vacation time.

Welsh’s departure comes at a critical time for Indianapolis. The Indiana Convention Center is set to open a $275 million, 350,000-square-foot addition Jan. 20, with the 1,005-room JW Marriott hotel set to open nearby on Feb. 4.

The city is also in the midst of planning for one of its biggest events ever, the 2012 Super Bowl.

One primary concern is that Welsh will take key ICVA staffers that he recruited here with him to Chicago, but sources within the organization said Welsh has pledged not to do that.

“This is a very amicable departure,” said ICVA spokesman Chris Gahl. “We have a very good senior staff that remains dedicated to executing our business plan in 2011 and beyond.”

Welsh surprised many in the industry when he announced in June 2008 he was leaving his post as head of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau to replace the retiring Bob Bedell as ICVA CEO.

Welsh, 54, quickly made a name for himself as a change agent, bolstering the ICVA’s sales staff and expanding sales efforts and satellite offices in markets such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

He also rolled out a new Indianapolis visitors’ branding campaign in 2009, and made no secret about his intentions to wrestle away business for Indianapolis from such convention hotbeds as Boston, Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas.

Before becoming CEO of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, Welsh held executive positions for United Airlines, Horizon Air, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., West Hotels and Resorts, and HelmsBriscoe, a national meeting planning firm.

In Indianapolis, Welsh became known as a crusader for investing in tourism. He lobbied for and got increased funding for advertising and marketing initiatives needed to lure more conventions and leisure travelers to Indianapolis. And he did so as the economy tanked and the Capital Improvement Board struggled with a $47 million budget shortfall. Welsh also helped secure a $5.4 million grant from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation Inc. to be used to promote the city as a visitors’ destination.

During Welsh’s tenure, he increased the ICVA’s annual budget by $3 million, to nearly $14 million.

“When I first met Don Welsh, I knew immediately he was everything we had asked for and more in a leader of the ICVA,” said John Livengood, president of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana. “With Don, we got more than a good executive. To find someone with his level of energy will be very hard. He really did the work of two or three people.”

While some may question why Welsh didn’t have a non-compete clause in his ICVA employment contract, that’s not common practice in the hospitality industry, Livengood said.

Welsh’s track record here is a part of what caught the eye of  Windy City officials, said Bruce Rauner, chairman of the Chicago convention bureau board. Rauner said he is confident Welsh can take Chicago’s convention and tourism “to a whole new level.”

Welsh has his work cut out for him. In the past year, McCormick Place has been beset with funding and labor issues.

Key to solving Chicago’s challenges will be bringing in new business, which has some Indianapolis tourism officials worried that they’ll now be competing against Welsh for convention business as opposed to having him work for the city.

“Indianapolis is just getting to the point where we’ll be competing with Chicago,” Livengood said. “Don put a good team together here, and I hope we continue to enjoy the benefits of that.”


  • Move quickly and don't reinvent the wheel
    Chicago is a mess.

    Indianapolis needs to move quickly to find a superior leader and secure key staff to aggressively get new business to fill our new hotels, expanded convention center, world class airport, and many vibrant hospitality venues.

    Chicago is over priced, has some of the highest taxes in the country, bogged down in political/bureaucratic/union infighting with many conventions willing to move elsewhere. The soon to be former Mayor Daley has left massive financial debts that dwarf any problems facing our city.

    Welsh may have bitten off more than he can chew this time.
  • Sorry Indy Fan
    Much like the other comments made prior to yours I don't think too many people who do the work of making the ICVA successful will miss Don. He and one of his staffers have done more to hurt the convention bureau local relationships than anyone could anticipate. Years of work down the drain. Now he is on to number 19 on his list of jobs. We should refer to him as the Larry Brown of the Convention CEOs.
  • Long-Term Contracts Are Difficult to Negotiate
    Riley, a corporation can use restricted stock and similar forms of compensation to keep an individual on for the long-term, but it would be very difficult for the ICVA to negotiate a contract locking anyone into a 5-year term. Sure, you can put what you like in any contract, but if someone wants out, then they will break it, and if you sue them, they will counter-claim saying you breached.

    The 13th Amendment prevents slavery, so the best you could do is put some sort of penalty clauses in the contract for an early departure. However, it can be difficult to prove damages, if any, from an early departure, especially, when there are a fair number of potential replacements out there who can perform the same task for the same salary. Liquidated damages clauses are very difficult to enforce if they are drafted to be punitive instead of a reasonable reflection of the actual loss suffered by breach. You can't simply say, "Give back the salary we paid you" because there would obviously be value to the services performed up until the time of departure.

    Also, a contract may contain non-compete clauses, but such clauses can be difficult to enforce outside the context of the sale of a business, and certain states, like California hold them to be against public policy and unenforceable (outside the context of the sale of a business).

    So, lots of luck with drafting a contract that (A) any employee candidate would agree to sign, and (B) wouldn't end up being litigated in court.

  • Sold Out the City
    Let me edit your comment.

    "Don did an incredible job selling out our city and our taxpayers. The political insiders will miss him."

    Welsh never saw a tax and spend scheme he wouldn't support. He helped push through the highest hotel tax in the country. His legacy will be reckless spending and misplaced priorities when it came to the taxpayers' money.
  • They Call Him the Hatchet
    This guy was nothing more than a hatchet-man for the board of directors. They wanted to clean house and not have the blood on their hands. So, they hired a guy they knew would do the dirty deed and only be around for a couple years. It doesn't take long for word to get around. How many jobs in the last fifteen years? The article indicates that Chicago needs to go, "to a whole new level." Who better to bring in than someone like Mr. Welsh. This guy was hired for one reason, and one reason only. He'll be in Chicago for three years max. He'll clean house there, too...mark my words.
  • Short Timer
    This is disappointing as he didn't even serve 3 years. In his short term he provided drive, energy and made some "noise" but what did it do for the city? The Convention Center and Lucas was already planned before his arrival. It doesn't take much to build a budget...real success in based on the revenue return. I'm guessing the next person will have to figure this one out. Suggestion: 5 year contract with no outs within the first 3 years.
    • He'll be missed
      Don is an incredible guy who did a wonderful job selling our city. He and his family will be missed!

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