LINCOLN — The person who brought us “Nebraska Nice” says she was seeking extra spice at the 2015 state tourism convention when she spent $44,000 for a speech on the connection between happiness and success.
But past state tourism officials say they never spent more than $10,000 on such speeches, and sponsors usually paid for them, not state taxpayers.
Dave Miller, who served as state tourism director from 1996 to 2001, said he never spent more than $2,000 for such a keynote speaker.
Miller said he would sometimes get speakers for free by agreeing to give a speech at another state’s annual convention if that state provided a speaker for Nebraska.
Another state tourism official, who worked at the agency more recently, said the cost of speakers never exceeded $10,000.
The Nebraska Tourism Commission and its director, Kathy McKillip, were criticized in a recent state audit for spending $44,000 on keynote speaker Shawn Achor, and paying $9,000 each for other speakers, at its 2015 state convention in Columbus.
The spending, the audit said, was excessive and unnecessary. Concerns also were raised about a trip to Lyon, France, taken by McKillip in October 2015 to attend an international equestrian event and discuss plans for when Nebraska hosts the same competition in 2017.
Achor is a researcher of positive thinking and the author of a best-selling book, “The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness.” He spoke for about 90 minutes to a crowd of about 150 people at the tourism convention. That works out to about $300 per person.
Achor, according to several websites, charges between $25,000 and $50,000 per speech. He spoke in Omaha at the 2014 Institute for Career Advancement (ICAN) Women’s Leadership Conference. But that event drew nearly 2,100 people.
McKillip said she doubled the budget for speakers for the 2015 Tourism Conference because of a concern about declining attendance.
The hope, she said, was that booking more nationally recognized speakers would draw not only travel professionals, but others outside the industry. The speakers, McKillip said, had all spoken at other state tourism conferences and had received positive reviews.
In addition to Achor, the tourism agency spent $9,000 each for two other speakers: Ira Blumenthal, the president of Atlanta-based Co-opportunities Inc., whose marketing and branding company has worked for Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and other large corporations; and Justin Laborde, vice president of The Futures Co., who consults with companies on lifestyle and consumer trends from his home base in North Carolina.
The state audit said three speakers were paid $9,000, but records supplied by McKillip contradicted that. Her records showed that two speakers were paid $9,000 each, and two other speakers were paid $5,000 and $4,000 each. They were Dr. Ray Perryman, president and CEO of an economic research and analysis firm based in Waco, Texas; and Bruce Erley, the founder of Creative Strategies Group of Denver, who is a 30-year veteran of event marketing and festival sponsorship.
The state audit said the spending on speakers was “excessive or questionable,” and it criticized spending $300 for complimentary massages at the event. It pointed out that the convention was over budget by about $84,000, and, as a result, the tourism agency had to use $44,000 from an agency promotion cash fund to cover the excess.
McKillip, in her response to the audit, said that members of the Nebraska Tourism Commission on the conference committee knew about the increased spending and that the agency “believes in the value and importance of providing quality speakers.” Hiring the massage firm supported a local business, she added.
“Not all conferences break even,” McKillip said in the audit, adding that the agency should be able to use other funds to cover conference expenses.
In a later interview, the director said that her job overall, as the head of the state tourism agency, was to be “assertive” in marketing Nebraska for visitors. Almost all of the tourism agency’s budget comes from state lodging taxes.
“The concept is, if the money is there, to utilize it,” McKillip said.
The trip to France was to attend the Longines World Cup finals of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the governing body for Olympic equestrian events. Omaha will host the World Cup in 2017.
Harold Cliff, president/executive director of the Omaha Sports Commission, said McKillip joined him and officials from the Omaha Equestrian Foundation on the trip because it was important for a government official to accompany the group. The 2017 Omaha event, he said, will have a worldwide audience, and FEI officials want to see what kind of marketing efforts will be made.
“I think the FEI appreciated that level of interest from Nebraska,” Cliff said.
Lisa Roskens, an Omaha businesswoman and head of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, said she was thrilled that McKillip agreed to come.
“We have to figure out how to get the Europeans here. Omaha, Nebraska, is not on their radar,” Roskens said.
She added that McKillip told her that she had planned to attend another FEI event in March in Gothenburg, Sweden, but ended up canceling because of the terrorist attacks in Belgium.
McKillip declined to comment Monday about the aborted trip, but she billed the state for $3,074 in expenses for transportation and lodging for the trip to France, according to documents that she provided to The World-Herald.
Both Cliff and Roskens praised McKillip’s work as a promoter and said they have appreciated the state grants that their organizations have received to promote events that draw visitors from outside the state.
The Omaha Equestrian Foundation has been awarded $105,070 in grants from the tourism agency over the past six years to promote Olympic-caliber riding events — the recent International equestrian competition in Omaha, as well as the 2017 World Cup.
The Omaha Sports Commission has received $400,000 over the past six years to promote a trio of international volleyball events held in Omaha and the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials scheduled this year.
McKillip has previously defended the trip to France, saying it allowed her to make contact with equestrian sponsors and clarify how the event could be used to market Nebraska to European visitors.
“This is a good international opportunity,” she said.
Both Roskens and Cliff said Nebraskans need to look past the critical audit to the great events that have come to the state thanks to the sponsorships from the tourism agency.
“She is a great promoter,” Roskens said of McKillip, adding that the director may just need more support in handling financial matters.
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