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Outrage over corporate junkets sinks TradeWinds gathering

Public outrage over corporate junkets stole a big chunk of business from the Tampa Bay area's largest resort this week.

Even worse, says the boss at the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, the event was a training session for insurance agents, not a party for high-flying executives.

The resort learned Friday that a meeting for 150 employees of a Wells Fargo & Co. subsidiary — scheduled to begin Sunday — was canceled. The four-day event for Rural Community Insurance Services was worth between $200,000 and $250,000, said TradeWinds chief executive Tim Bogott.

Wells Fargo had just gone through a public relations nightmare. The bank, which received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, was criticized on Capitol Hill for planning an all-expenses-paid incentive trip for top performers at two pricey Las Vegas casino hotels.

Wells Fargo originally defended the trip in a full-page ad in the New York Times, dismissing characterizations of employee recognition events as junkets. When the furor continued, the bank canceled the Vegas event.

"Given the environment, we made the difficult decision to cancel all team member recognition events," said spokeswoman Kathy Harrison. She couldn't confirm the purpose of the TradeWinds meeting Wednesday or why it was scratched.

Bogott says the meeting was for agents of Rural Community, a crop insurance company, to bone up on regulatory compliance issues. Resort managers were told the canceled meeting was rescheduled for later in the year in Indianapolis, he said.

"It's all about appearances, not the money," Bogott said. "They will end up paying twice."

The TradeWinds holds a deposit for the meeting and billed Rural Community for the balance, he said.

The hotel industry went on the offensive this week, blaming members of Congress for attacking a key segment of the already suffering travel business.

"You can't say you want to create jobs and stimulate the economy and at the same time discourage people from traveling," said Geoff Freeman, a spokesman for the U.S. Travel Association, a travel trade group. "The last thing you need politicians doing is creating more damage by scoring easy points."

Pinellas tourism officials learned Wednesday that 106,000 fewer visitors spent at least one night in the county last year than in 2007. The total of nearly 5.2 million was 2 percent below a year earlier. That marked the first year-to-year decline since 2002, when visitor numbers fell 0.2 percent in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Outrage over corporate junkets sinks TradeWinds gathering 02/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 8:59am]
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