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Houston's high-fashion high-dollar tourist experiment

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Houston's high-fashion high-dollar tourist experiment (KTRK)

As the lights came up on New York's Fashion Week in September, a Houston-based astronaut welcomed the gathered VIPs to Vivienne Tam's latest fashion line via video from the International Space Station.

It was just the start of a Houston connected fashion debut.

Tam -- a designer well known in Hong Kong, China and US fashion circles -- debuted a line described as 'Houston Inspired.'

A parade of models emerged wearing Tam's latest designs. Many were adorned with butterflies, others with logos from NASA, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and even Rice University.

There was minimal press of the event here in Houston. And when Ted Oberg Investigates went onto the streets of Houston with pictures of the fashions, not all Houstonians were kind to the Houston inspired couture. When asked by ABC13, reactions ranged from 'Very plain' to 'eye-catching' to 'pretty but it's not going to bring tourists to Houston.'

Houston CultureMap Editor In Chief Clifford Pugh was in the New York for the Tam collection's debut. Pugh told ABC13, "It has this hipster vibe."

"Houston is in my blood," Tam remarked to Fox Business News that day. "I love it."

Tam told other reporters she had dreams about Houston which helped inspire the collection.

After a lengthy review of Greater Houston Convention & Visitors bureau records ABC13 asked if there could there be something else that may have helped bring the collection along.

There was.


In a mix of private AND taxpayer dollars.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau collaborated with Tam on the collection. Tam brought the designs. The Bureau paid Tam's company $400,000 in addition to a weekend all-expense paid trip to Houston for Tam and an assistant, hired a DJ for the after party, and sent numerous Houston tourism officials to New York for the debut. In all it was close to $450,000.

The bureau's CEO Mike Waterman however told Culture Map's Pugh, the cost was less than half that on the day of the show. "I think they (Waterman) told me it was $200,000."

When Pugh reported the amount, Waterman's colleagues asked the boss for clarification. Internal emails show a GHCVB PR assistant sent Waterman a copy of the contract language showing the $400,000 expense, no one told Pugh of the error.

So we did.

"Why didn't they tell me that in the first place?" Pugh asked us.

Waterman claims he believed that was all had been paid to that point. Internal invoices show that to be incorrect -- that all $400,000-plus had already been approved and paid on the deal weeks before the show.

Waterman "could not recall" that detail when ABC13 inquired.

Waterman initially told ABC13 the cash was privately raised through the sale of Bureau memberships. When confronted with his own financial statements showing that was unlikely Waterman agreed that the Bureau used "all available resources" on its programs including millions of dollars in Hotel Occupancy Tax funds the bureau maintains from previous years.

Additionally all GHCVB employees are tax-funded making the all-private cash claim even more unlikely.

Even so, Waterman told us he "would absolutely do it (the Tam collaboration) again." Waterman suggests it was an alternative way to sell the city especially to Asian tourists - which Houston is trying to attract to visit the region.

He cites the positive press and by his own count the more than 700 million "impressions" the collection garnered on line. An "impression" is anytime someone saw or could have seen a mention of the collection.

Waterman also argues that there has been return on investment on the Houston-themed dress show, including, he said: "Based on our conservative estimates we have received a 5-time to 10-times return on our investment from an earned media perspective to date with more to follow."

He noted that TV media the show received is part of that reason.

"I am passionate about trying to get our local Houstonians proud about what we have to offer as a tourist destination," Waterman said.

Costs are not the only questions raised in our review of the program. We reviewed numerous emails from Holly Clapham, Houston First's chief marketing officer. Houston First is the GHCVB's parent organization.

In May when the plan was first presented, Clapham wrote in an internal email, "Vivienne has no connection to Houston." Later adding, "backing someone with no real connection to Houston creates an opportunity for backlash."

The criticism continued internally for months -- but does not appear to be answered in internal emails. At one point Clapham accused the GHCVBs PR Consultant of "dodging the issue."
A PowerPoint presentation from the early days of this idea suggested shows in Beijing too -- since attracting Asian tourists was always the goal. Internal emails from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors bureau just weeks ago suggest Vivienne Tam's company wanted $500,000 more to "execute" that opportunity.

The GHCVB passed. CEO Waterman called it "a scheduling conflict."

He told ABC13 the bureau is still working on a possible Houston show. Houston would have to pay more for that, but he suggests only in the $25-30,000 range.

Runway fashion typically takes months from runway to department store or boutique. As of today, there is no Houston outlet signed on to sell the line. The GHCVB tells us they hope to have a deal inked by spring 2017.
Related Topics:
Ted Oberg Investigates
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