Visit Saint Paul board declines to renew Terry Mattson’s contract as CEO of convention center authority – Twin Cities
The board of directors of Visit Saint Paul has declined to renew the contract of its president and chief executive officer, Terry Mattson.
Mattson had headed Visit Saint Paul, the city’s tourism bureau, as well as the RiverCentre Authority, which oversees the city’s convention center and its aging downtown parking ramp, since 2014. His current contract ends in February.
“It wasn’t my decision,” said Mattson, in a brief interview on Thursday. “Beyond that, I don’t have any comment.”
The 17-member board — which includes nine mayoral appointees — did not have to hold a formal vote on whether to renew Mattson’s contract because it expires Feb. 17.
Asked about the decision, Kamal Baker, a spokesman for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office, said that “contracts that automatically expire give both parties options to exit their obligations and consider other possibilities.” He said that “Visit Saint Paul and city leaders are excited to welcome and engage new leadership” to promote the capital city, but offered no further comment.
Asked if the mayor had a role in not renewing Mattson’s contract, Baker declined further comment.
Liz Xiong, chair of the Visit Saint Paul board of directors, issued a written statement this week announcing that Visit Saint Paul will be launching a search for Mattson’s replacement immediately. In an interview Thursday, she said a search committee will help craft a new job description, details of which have not been finalized or made public.
“The job itself is going to be changing somewhat,” said Xiong, noting nothing precludes Mattson from reapplying for the new position once it is posted. “There’s certainly going to be components of what Terry was doing that is going to be part of this position, but I think the board and city leaders are really excited about imagining what else could be added.”
City Council Member Chris Tolbert, who sits on the board of Visit Saint Paul, said the board had discussed the CEO role Thursday, but he otherwise referred all questions to Xiong.
City Council Member Jane Prince, who has sat on the Visit St. Paul board for four years, said the board had previously been supportive of Mattson throughout his nine years at the helm of the tourism bureau, two of which overlapped with a major public health crisis.
“I really feel given how positively we’re coming out of the pandemic, and the outlook for the coming years, I was disappointed that we’re losing strong leadership at a critical time,” Prince said.
“He has assembled just a great team, just a real powerhouse team,” she added. “They got us through the pandemic in much better shape than a lot of our competitors around the country. Can you think of a business that’s been more impacted than convention and tourism management?”
Red Bull Crashed Ice event, Ordway concert hall, Viking River Cruises
Mattson’s tenure coincided with several years of the popular Red Bull Crashed Ice skating event by the Cathedral of St. Paul, the opening of a new Ordway concert hall and the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, all of which put varying degrees of spotlight on the capital city.
More recently, Visit Saint Paul welcomed Viking River Cruises, an international travel company that, despite a difficult launch, now plies the waters of the Mississippi River with luxury cruises from New Orleans.
From 1990 through 2013, Mattson was the chief executive officer for Visit Duluth, which saw strong growth in its tourism industry in that time.
“What was an $80 million industry in the late 1980s grew to $800 million today,” Mattson writes on his online profile on LinkedIn. Among his contributions to that growth, Mattson served as founder and executive producer of the popular Tall Ships festivals, which drew crowds of 250,000 people or more from all 50 states and every Canadian province.
“It was history-making,” Mattson said on Thursday. “It was attendance that rivaled the State Fair.”
St. Paul’s experience with tourism over the past decade has been more uneven, even before a pandemic ground major events to a halt for the better part of two years. Mattson has long reminded the city council that among its major challenges, downtown St. Paul lacks a traditional convention center hotel that can host 500 to 1,000 rooms, a key draw so conference-goers don’t have to spread themselves across multiple hotels and several downtown city blocks.
As a result, many conferences and conventions just look elsewhere for lodging — including to Minneapolis. The Intercontinental hotel, the 410-room hotel closest to St. Paul’s convention center, is four blocks away and not easily accessible by skyway.
Then there’s the convention center’s poorly-aging Kellogg Boulevard parking ramp, which spent much of 2018 either partially or fully offline for maintenance after a slab of concrete ceiling fell on a parked car. No one was injured.
Mattson had long called Visit Saint Paul the most under-funded agency of its kind, operating on a budget about half of that of its Des Moines, Madison and Omaha counterparts, and a slim fraction of that of Minneapolis.
St. Paul, which merged its tourism bureau and convention center authority in 2005, is one of only a handful of major cities in the country where the two operate under the same agency. Through a contract with Visit Saint Paul, the Minnesota Wild oversee bookings at the Xcel Energy Center, the city’s primary sporting and concert venue.
The pandemic, which officially shuttered events and businesses in March 2020, was especially tough on St. Paul.
During the early days of the public health crisis, one-in-five jobs lost in Minnesota were in tourism, according to Visit Saint Paul, and the immediate St. Paul area lost more than $1 billion in sales and $70 million in related tax revenues, along with some 15,000 to 20,000 jobs. Mattson’s staff went from 18 to 11.
An additional 1 percent added to the city’s lodging tax was expected to bring the tourism bureau $5 million in 2020. With hotel bookings off by as much as 75 percent that year, it fell nearly $4 million short, reducing Visit Saint Paul’s marketing budget by 70 percent.
While major bookings at the Xcel Center and RiverCentre cratered for 18 months, leasing part of the convention center to the state of Minnesota for COVID-19 testing brought in some badly-needed revenue. Events have since picked up again, including the Latvian Song and Dance Festival — the largest of its kind in the world — which landed at the RiverCentre June 29 through July 4. Despite inflation and pandemic, travel is returning.
Still, not everything has rebounded.
“We still didn’t see the Festival of Nations come back,” Mattson told the St. Paul City Council during a presentation in March he dubbed “A Comeback Story.” “I’m not sure we’re ever going to see the Festival of Nations come back.”
On its website, the Festival of Nations — which was canceled in 2022 — indicates it will not be returning in 2023, though the International Institute of Minnesota is still examining its options for future years.