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Arnold M. Knightly

Attendees get conference bills

7 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The ownership of the Westin Casuarina is standing behind a decision to charge attendees of an October dental conference for the organizer's unpaid bill.

Convention industry veterans and conference attendees, however, are questioning the ethics and legality of that decision.

"This should result in criminal charges for those that conceived of this scam to recoup the bad debt," said Don Dible, a conference speaker and co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul."

The Coaching Center of Austin, Texas, was delinquent to the Westin Casuarina on payment of nearly $57,000 in unpaid food, beverage and associated costs. Dible, and other conference attendees and speakers recently began receiving charges on their credit card statements for a "pro-rated amount per attendee" from the hotel.

"We told (the Coaching Center) we would have no recourse but to charge the attendees," said Hud Englehart, spokesman for the Westin's owner, Crestview Hills, Ky.-based Columbia Sussex. "That still didn't cause them to bring payment forth so we began charging the attendees."

Englehart said a clause on the sign-in folio empowers the company to recoup the money from the third parties.

"I agree that my bill liability for this bill is not waived and agree to be held personally liable in the event that the indicated person, company, or third party fails to pay for any part or all of these charges," the clause reads.

Dible argues that the passage applies to the room and incidentals around the property but does not bind him to pay for the conference's unpaid costs.

Approximately 85 people attended the conference, according to Westin management.

Suzanne Black, president of The Coaching Center, did not return a phone call Friday.

However, she told The Associated Press that the bill was overdue and that she had been talking to the property about trying to set up a payment plan.

A person familiar with the situation that asked not to be identified said an oral agreement to pay $10,000 installments was reached between the Westin and the center but no money was ever received.

The company has maintained that as soon as the center pays all charges to the attendees will be reimbursed what ever was charged.

"My first reaction is that it is very bizarre," said Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events. "I have never heard of a situation like this and I have been around for 32 years."

Hacker said attendees traditionally don't have a contractual obligation to the hotel for a conference they happen to be attending at the property.

"I presume the organizer is a separate legal entity from the people who attended the conference," Hacker said. "Unless there is a contractual relationship between the attendees and the sponsor, I would think the hotel is on pretty shaky ground."

Noreen Burke, a show manager for Chicago-based Corcoran Expositions, a tradeshow marketing group, said it would be rare that an attendee would be responsible for an entire group.

"That doesn't make sense, legally," Burke said. "I don't know how they can make the attendee responsible for the conference promoter not paying their bill."

South Point spokeswoman Courtney Fitzgerald said convention contracts vary widely and the attendee needs to read anything they are signing carefully.

"It's not common place, however, it just depends on the final agreement the convention makes with their contract," said Fitzgerald, whose property has 150,000 square feet of convention space.

MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands Corp. declined to comment on their convention contracts. Harrah's Entertainment and Station Casinos did not return calls for comment.

Dible, who has owned different businesses during the past 37 years, said he understands that an unpaid bill can be vexing.

However, he is not content to stand by and wait for both sides to work out an agreement.

He has drafted a letter he plans to send to the management of the Westin, as well as Columbia Sussex, Better Business Bureau of Southern Nevada and the Chase MasterCard Dispute Resolution Center demanding repayment of the charges. Dible also plans to approach the Nevada Attorney General's office to see if any state laws have been broken.

Black told The Associated Press that she has instructed the nearly 20 attendees she has heard from to dispute the charges with the credit card company. She added that she's refunded those whose debit cards were charged.

That raised a question for Englehart.

"If she can do that, why won't she pay us?" Englehart said.

Englehart said the attendees should be upset with The Coaching Center for not paying the bill, not the hotel.

"If anybody wants to be angry it ought be the attendees who are now getting billed for what the Coaching Center was responsible for doing," Englehart said.

According to The Coaching Center's Web site, future conferences are scheduled around the country in the next few months including in Denver, Chicago, San Francisco and the center's hometown of Austin.

"I understand they are booking other events and paying," Englehart said. "I don't understand why they aren't paying us."