Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: May/June 2014
A Conversation With Ernest Wooden Jr. (Part I)
By: Solomon J. Herbert

Ernest (Ernie) Wooden, Jr., a long-time senior hospitality industry executive and Los Angeles-area resident since 1999, was been named president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (LA Tourism), in January of 2013

Wooden has spent his entire career in the hospitality industry, including more than a decade in senior leadership positions in both global brand management and operations with Hilton Hotels Corporation.  As executive vice president, Global Brand Management for Hilton, based in Beverly Hills, CA, he led all worldwide branding initiatives for the well-known hotel corporation, working with 3,000 properties in 80 countries.  His operations roles at Hilton included overseeing territories in Mexico, the Caribbean and across the U.S.

Recently, Wooden spoke to Black Meetings & Tourism about his work at Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board and the developments taking place in the LA area.

Q: What is the role of LA Tourism?

A: The work of LA Tourism is broad in the city.  Primarily we are responsible for engaging tourists to come to the city.   Last year brought in and counted about 42 million tourists that came into Los Angeles, and we set a north star goal of getting to 50 million by 2020..  So one of main concerns is bringing tourists into the city. 

Another part of our job is to go out and find conventions that will come to Los Angeles and use our convention center.  We have offices in about six or seven locations throughout the United States, and those offices are populated by people who do nothing but go out after associations, corporate business, pharmaceuticals, whatever that might be.

The third thing we do is that we represent about 150 hotels, specifically in the small meetings market. And by that I mean we have a team of people, four of which are local, and half a dozen that are national, that go after self-contained meetings.  These are not conventions or meetings that can go into the Convention Center, but these are meetings that would be self-contained in our hotels. 

Another part of our responsibility is route development for Los Angeles World Airports.  And in that role we have about 10 offices around the world where they talk primarily to airlines and trade magazines to attract people to come into LA.  In that role we try to identify nonstop flights into LA.  There are about 60 foreign destinations that come into Los Angeles Airport.  You might ask why that's important.  It's because our economists both internally and externally, have measured that for every flight we have that comes into LA represents about 650 million dollars of economic impact. Every time we bring in one new flight it has significant impact on our economy, on our jobs, on taxes, etc. 

And then in addition to that we have international offices where we go after international conventions, M.I.C.E. business and things like that.  We are in Seoul, Korea.  We have two offices in China.  I opened a new one recently in Shanghai, but we've been in Beijing for over seven years.  We are in Sydney, Australia.  We have representation, of course, that covers Mexico here in Los Angeles, and Canada.  And then we have offices in London, England that covers Western Europe and the Middle East.

Q: You say you have set a goal of 50 million visitors by 2020.  What would be the economic impact of such an increase?

A: It didn't take long for me after I came to the Bureau here to see what the heavy economic movers were.  Tourism, in fact, is one of the heaviest economic movers for the city and the county.  And I learned that those 42 million people that were here last year spent directly on our hotels, our restaurants, taxi cabs and others, 16.5 billion dollars in one year.  The economists tell me that in order to understand the full economic impact, you've got to multiply that direct spend by an econometric factor of about two.  Which says that those 42 million people spent 32 billion dollars on our economy.  And so, the question was, how do we get that number up?  And how do we get that significantly and quickly? 

I challenged our internal organization and some consultants and I said what "What would it take for us to get to 50 million tourists n Los Angeles?  And will that be organic and can we do that by 2020?  The short answer was no, there's no way we can get to 50 million organically by 2020.  But if the city really got serious about its tourism assets, we could turbo charge, if you will, provide more octane, to get us to 50 million by 2020. 

So my next question was, if we got to 50 million, what does that look like?  What do the numbers look like.  Well, one of the first numbers that jumped out is that we would go from about 320,000 tourism-related jobs to 400,000 tourism-related jobs in the city and county of Los Angeles, by getting to 50 million.  We know that for about every 300 new tourists, we create one new job.  A waitress, a bellman or a taxi driver, or something like that.  So we would jump to about 400,000 jobs.  If we were able to do that, we would also contribute taxes in excess of one billion dollars, which is a significant amount of money. 

Q: What are some of the steps you are taking to reach this goal?

A: To answer your questions there are three or four things that we have to do that we did not do effectively as we could have done before, that we are completely focused on now.  I'll start with the Convention Center.  The Convention Center was in need of being modernized if you will, what I call futurized.  So we waned to clean up the Convention Center.  We wanted to solve some problems of contiguous space, because we have two different halls.  So when the main space was over here, we wouldn't have to discount over here.  So fixing the contiguous issue of the Convention Center is a primary goal. 

Modernizing and futurizing it is a secondary goal.  We want to make sure that as we do this work we're considering what meeting planners 20 years from now well need, technologically and otherwise, so we can build that into the center today to give ourselves a competitive advantage.  Part of this process called for us to support what we call plan A, which was AEG's effort to get a football team.  That was a very compelling plan that we had before I came.  If they were successful at attracting a football team, then AEG would be responsible for knocking down what is now the West Hall and rebuilding another hall of similar size next to our current South Hall, solving the contiguous issue.  And then taking the space where the West Hall is, and building a 70 some odd thousand seat arena.  And they would be the financial octane behind all that happening. 

It was important though, as I started thinking about getting this hall issue figured out, that we needed to start thinking about what if that doesn't happen?  Suppose you don't get a football team, then what happens.  So several months ago we started something called Plan B.  Plan B was designed and driven by former councilwoman Jan Perry.  She insisted, before she lefty office, that we begin thinking seriously about what happens if, and that gave birth to what we now commonly call Plan B.  And so we've got a bunch of smart people that have gotten together to examine the potential design and financial interest issues of us having to do it ourselves if Plan A doesn't work out. 

So the second thing we had to do, which is kind of artificial, was to fix the Convention Center in order to get to the 50 million.  To get to the 50 million we also had to  champion more hotels within close proximity to the Convention Center.  Unfortunately, Los Angeles has something south of 2,000 rooms within walking distance, defined as about 1.2 miles, of the Convention Center.  That's not nearly enough to capture the mega game changing conventions that need a whole lot more rooms. 

We started calculating what that looked like, and because we have such a robust occupancy in LA, we close at almost 80% occupancy this year, we figured that we could add another 5,000 rooms in close proximity to the Center without negatively affecting our current occupancies of our hotels that have already invested in the city, which is an importance balance that we had to make.  We didn't want to invite new supply in and hurt the guys who are already here.  So we've come to a number that we think is the delicate balance between providing inventory that is in close proximity to the Convention Center while protecting our existing investors in the city. 

Part II will appear in the July/August issue.