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Chris Jones

Training Program by Las Vegas Events President Raises Questions

13 April 2005

The president of Las Vegas Events, the private nonprofit that stages some of the city's largest tourist draws, including the New Year's Eve fireworks and National Finals Rodeo, has quietly formed a side venture that will charge patrons at least $1,400 to learn how to better produce similar but smaller events.

Pat Christenson on Tuesday downplayed the threat to Las Vegas tourism because his project is aimed more at entry-level event planners than representatives of large organizations capable of luring significant business away from the city.

"There is no one that really competes with us," Christenson said of Las Vegas. "There isn't anyone who's going to go to this school that's going to take NFR away from us, that's going to take the LPGA (golf tournament) away from us. ... They're here because we're Vegas."

Christenson, who has headed Las Vegas Events since August 2001, has organized a five-day course on special event management billed as the Event Institute at Oglebay. Set in a secluded mountaintop resort in West Virginia, the August program hopes to instruct up to 60 professionals on topics such as staging rodeos and fireworks shows; securing corporate sponsors; merchandising; and nonprofit fund raising.

Las Vegas Events' 11-member board meets behind closed doors on a monthly basis. Calls placed to six of the 11 were not returned Tuesday, but four of the five reached said they were unaware of the institute or Christenson's role there.

"This is something I'll certainly look into," said Tom Jenkin, a Harrah's Entertainment executive and Las Vegas Events board member. "I think the biggest issue is whether or not that constitutes a conflict of interest."

Added Caesars Entertainment Senior Vice President Tony Santo: "I would have liked to have been made aware of it."

The institute's Web site says the course was established through DANI, Christenson's privately owned, Las Vegas-based professional education association, and in partnership with the International Festivals & Events Association, a Boise, Idaho-based trade group.

But the institute's very existence raises questions about Christenson's personal efforts to teach outsiders the city's tips and tricks. Most of Las Vegas Events' funding comes from hotel room taxes distributed by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a state-chartered agency that collects part of a 9 percent room tax paid by patrons of Clark County hotels and motels.

Convention bureaus, rodeo committees, venues and municipal governments are listed online among the "specific fields that will find the school beneficial," a solicitation that both encourages others' desire -- and if acted upon, ability -- to compete for often-lucrative special events.

Christenson dismisses such concerns as "far-fetched" and added the program might not even occur because only 11 people so far have signed up. When asked why he failed to inform most members of the Las Vegas Events board of the institute's existence, he said he "didn't see this as a big deal."

"I don't see anyone (enrolled) who would ever compete to bring an event against Las Vegas," he said. "The kind of people that would go to it aren't high-level people."

A source also said two Las Vegas Events employees -- Marketing Director Michael Mack, who should not be confused with the Las Vegas city councilman of the same name, and Corporate Marketing Director Dale Eeles -- were each planning to spend nearly $2,000 in agency funds to attend the private summer educational program organized by their supervisor, a step that would indirectly shift agency money toward their boss' personal interests.

Christenson acknowledged that he approached his subordinates about attending but later backed away from the idea.

"My sense is my board wouldn't allow that," he said. "I think (Mack and Eeles) would really benefit from it, but to me, that would be a conflict."

Kirk Hanson, a college professor and executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at California's Santa Clara University, has over the past decade studied government ethics issues. He said Christenson's actions surrounding the Institute at Oglebay seem improper, particularly if workers he supervises were to pay to attend.

"Whether Las Vegas Events is connected to a public entity or not, there is a serious question about ... using a company that you (oversee) as a supplier of services to your own organization," Hanson said. "If he's their boss and hasn't communicated to them how to run events in the normal course of his job, what the hell is he supposed to be doing?"

U.S. history is rife with tales of public officials directing civic funds toward their own interests, Hanson said. But in the wake of recent scandals such as Enron and WorldCom, he believes Americans are now much less tolerant of such conflicts.

"In cities all over the United States, there are very comfortable, long-standing relationships that are today being challenged," Hanson said. "The flow of funds from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to Las Vegas Events raises the stakes and generally should call for a tighter standard of conflict of interest than one might have in a typical nonprofit organization."

The convention authority's budget for the 2005 fiscal year ending June 30 includes an $8.1 million grant to Las Vegas Events. Next year's tentative budget, which is subject to revision through a scheduled May 19 public hearing, calls for Las Vegas Events to receive more than $8.43 million, a 4 percent increase.

The convention authority functions as a public agency and must disclose its business activities. But Las Vegas Events has operated independently since 1983, contending its financial records must remain private in order to compete with private event producers such as hotel-casino operators.

Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, who like Jenkin and Santo serves on both the convention authority and Las Vegas Events boards, learned of the event Tuesday, adding he does know enough on the subject to form an opinion on any potential conflict.

Speaking in general, however, Gibson said he supports outside employment policies such as Henderson's, which require workers to obtain permission from their immediate supervisor, department head and human resources director before they accept outside employment. That permission must be renewed on an annual basis and is subject to conflict-of-interest reviews.

"The process we have at city hall ... is a good one because that way you vet it fully, and if there are issues they're more likely to come up" during the disclosure process, said Gibson, who joined the Las Vegas Events board at the start of this year.

Another board member, local advertising executive Diane Dickerson, said she informally learned about the institute about three months ago but does not consider it a threat to local tourism.

"(Other) places are not Las Vegas. They don't have the foundation, they don't have the infrastructure," Dickerson said. "It would be a long, long time and (require) a lot of training before anyone could accomplish that."

Convention Authority President Rossi Ralenkotter said his organization closely monitors Las Vegas Events' actions, including signing off on how much money is allocated toward particular special events it organizes. But he too was unaware of the institute until asked about it Tuesday. He later referred subsequent questions on the subject to Las Vegas Events' board.

Christenson said his board was never formally informed of the institute, though its president, Boyd Gaming Corp. executive Steve Thompson, provided a letter of approval. He declined a request to provide the Review-Journal with a copy of that letter, however, and a Boyd spokesman said Thompson was unavailable for comment.

According to the institute's Web site, attendees must pay between $1,439 and $1,649 for five night's lodging at Oglebay, a mountaintop resort and conference center in Wheeling, W.Va. Those costs include daily meals and beverages, handout materials, resort activities and an $899 tuition fee.

To receive a diploma at the institute, students must re-enroll for a second 19-hour curriculum scheduled for summer 2006. Should this year's rates hold, a local attendee's total expenditures, including air fare, would total approximately $3,500 to $4,000 per diploma.

Listed instructors include Christenson; Daren Libonati, a longtime Christenson subordinate who now runs the Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Chris Bigelow, president of the Bigelow Cos., a Kansas City, Mo.-based food service company whose clients include UNLV, Thomas & Mack and hundreds of other well-known stadiums and arenas around the world.

"I really don't do a lot with the school other than pick the instructors, pick the curriculum," Christenson said.

A longtime UNLV employee, Christenson in 1983 helped open the school's 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center, which he oversaw for years along with UNLV's 30,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium. In 2001, he left UNLV to join Las Vegas Events, which over the past two decades has staged more than 200 events that brought more than 2.5 million visitors to the area.

In addition to the rodeo and fireworks, Las Vegas Events' 2005 calendar also features this month's horse jumping and dressage World Cup Finals at the Thomas & Mack; June's Arena Football League championship; two off-road races; and November's scheduled Aviation Nation military aircraft show at Nellis Air Force Base.

Christenson has previously declined to disclose his salary at Las Vegas Events. However, he told the Review-Journal in 2001 his position there pays more than the $155,000 per year he earned in his prior job supervising UNLV's sports and entertainment venues.