UPDATE: Convention leaders prepare for business without Welsh

January 4, 2011

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.”


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