If you've ever met Gerard J. "Jordy" Tollett, the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, you know that he's quick to talk about his shoes. (Heck, I still remember the day I met him at a local chamber of commerce event, where Tollett was nattily dressed in matching red shirt and red shoes. As a local activist told me, "Hey, the man likes his shoes.")
The shoe fetish may have caught up to him. Last night, KPRC ran a pretty damning report on just how Tollett spends his workday. In leading into the story, evening anchor Bill Balleza noted that Tollett, who makes $200,000 a year to "lure vital tourism and outside business dollars to Houston," spends at least part of his 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in "long lunches" and "hanging out in bars." The story even boasts a bomb of a soundbyte from our even-keeled Mayor Bill White. When asked if Tollett should be replaced, quoth Mayor Bill:
"He's had a job for quite a while, and I think it's about time we looked at alternatives."
Dun, dun, duuuunnnnn!
That's TV drama, folks. The report starts with Tollett, who was stopped by Channel 2's Troubleshooters investigative reporter Robert Arnold on the way to his car. "Don't accuse me of something I'm not doing," he growls at Arnold. The story then shows hidden camera video of Tollett hanging out at the Front Porch Pub in Midtown. Later, according to the story, Tollett hopped in his car and headed to Floyd's Cajun Seafood House in Clear Lake. "If I have a two-hour lunch, then I have a two-hour lunch. And if someone has a problem with it, they can let me know," a defensive Tollett says to Arnold.
So what's up at these two-hour lunches? The hidden camera video reveals Tollett downing four drinks while chatting up a lady at Front Porch Pub. He then hops back in his car and heads back to work. Another day: Tollett puts away five drinks and heads back to work.
Foul!, cries Tollett, who maintains that he's sipping nothing but Diet Coke at these outings. Arnold, who's now leaning into Tollett's car window, puts the question to him: "Are you saying you've never had a drink at the Front Porch Pub or Floyd's in the middle of the work day?"
"I ain't saying that," says Tollett. Then, "I may have." Then, "Not every day. Not more days than every day. Not more."
Some more video that doesn't exactly aid Tollett's case: Tollett chats up one lady, who turns out to be the undercover Channel 2 employee, at Front Porch. When asked what he does for a living, Tollett replies, "I wear funky shoes." Then, putting his shoe up on the bar, he says "I sell shoes." (Told ya he likes his shoes.)
"I don't know," Tollett says to Arnold about the comment. "I joke with people."
Seems Mayor Bill didn't think the joke was very funny. "If people are supposed to be working getting convention business for the city of Houston," he says to Arnold, "that's what they ought to be doing -- not hanging out in bars." Cue the looking for "alternatives" bomb quote.
The Channel 2 report comes just after talk around town that the city could've down more for the recent Essence Festival. (Tollett maintains that with only five months to prepare, only so much could've been done.) Tollett's contract is up in February, and considering the mayor's comments last night, and given his tepid opinion of Tollett from the beginning, things don't look too hot for JT. (Tollett hasn't returned our phone calls today; his press person says he's in a very important meeting.)
Don Henderson, the managing director of the Hyatt Regency Houston, disagrees "emphatically" with the idea that Tollett needs to be ousted, and calls Tollett one of the best he's ever worked with. "I think quite simply when someone points out a personal foible such as this, then it needs to be taken seriously," he says. "But I don't also believe that you have to connect what was reported last night with job performance."
Henderson, a former chairman of the GHCVB and the Bureau's Chair Emeritus, has been in the hospitality business for more than 40 years. His take on Tollett is a bit more positive. "Hotels are having the best year they've had in five years," he says, "and that is in no small means attributable to what the Convention and Visitors Bureau has achieved. If you count the number of city-wide conventions this year versus the previous year, they are in fact singularly responsible to the health of our industry today. "I would have to say that the report card on Jordy -- based on the health of the hotel industry today -- is an A-plus."
So is the two-hour lunch thing even newsworthy? Not really, says Henderson. "In this business, you do spend an awful lot of time out of your office conferring with colleagues, conferring with constituents and conferring with customers. There's no question that entertainment is a vital part of that job. Most of us in this business, if we take a two-hour lunch, we're probably working till 8 or 10 o'clock," says Henderson. "Looking at hours -- when you come to work, when you take lunch, when you go home -- is not the norm in this industry."
Okay, how about the drinking? "I also think control and self-restraint are admirable characteristics when you're doing this job," Henderson adds.
Tollett's sense of self-restraint -- and his ability to survive -- is now the stuff of local legend. So there's no telling what will happen to the well-heeled CEO.
One thing's for sure: If he trips up at his current gig, there's always shoe sales. -- Steven Devadanam