Cheers!

Travel Penticton chairwoman Barb Haynes and executive director Thom Tischik.

For an organization that’s in the business of selling adventure tales, Travel Penticton sure has trouble telling its own story.

That’s not entirely true; its people happily appear before city council quarterly to sing their own praises.

During the last such report in June they bragged about a $20,000 campaign to run Travel Penticton commercials in movie theatres that reached 200,000 people in the Lower Mainland, Edmonton and Calgary.

Travel Penticton also dropped $42,500 with a PR firm to lure, and host, travel writers here, plus spent $40,000 on visitors’ guides, $40,000 for online advertising and $13,500 to participate in motorcycle shows in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. There was also talk of a big spread in a motorcycle magazine that reached hundreds of thousands of readers.

This is the type of external marketing Travel Penticton is supposed to do with the $300,000 it receives annually from the City of Penticton and another $640,000 it expects to receive this year from the hotel tax. Together those funds account for 84% of Travel Penticton’s projected budget this year.

But when you start to ask what else Travel Penticton spends money on, the organization gets a bit ornery.

Readers will recall a January article in The Herald about Travel Penticton staff and board members going on a $10,000 retreat last year at Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon. (We’re now told it was actually $11,213.)

After that story ran, we were tipped off about three other eyebrow-raising expenses: a 2017 retreat in Osoyoos, a 2018 trip to Australia taken by executive director Thom Tischik, and a sole-source contract awarded to Tischik’s partner to work on the new visitors’ centre on Westminster Avenue.

We asked Travel Penticton for details of those matters, but were told such information is only available to members, so the board would have to rule on it. Surprise! The board said no. Nor would it provide us with a membership list.

We then applied to become a member of Travel Penticton. Again, we were told The Herald’s request was unique and the board would have to rule on it. Surprise! The board said no.

Since five months had passed since our initial request for information, we decided it was time to play hardball. We told Travel Penticton we were prepared to publish a story repeating the allegations and then do a series of follow-ups touching base with each and every board member.

Only then did chairwoman Barb Haynes agree to a sit-down with herself and a few other scowling board members. Tischik wasn’t there.

What was eventually revealed was actually a bit underwhelming.

According to Haynes, the retreat in Osoyoos was held at Watermark Resort and cost $8,000, Tischik’s trip to Australia cost $3,250 and was organized by the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, and the contract awarded to Tischik’s partner was for painting inside the visitors’ centre and totalled $1,408.51.

(The contract, we were told, was actually awarded by a city staffer because the building is owned by the city. When we asked the city to confirm that, staff could find no record of the invoice. Oddly enough, it was only after we started asking questions that Haynes said she realized the invoice had been “misplaced,” and a fresh copy was submitted to the city.)

We’re under no illusion that we’re investigating a major story here.

What we are doing is showing how absurd Travel Penticton’s response was to fair questions about how it’s spending public money.

You can decide for yourself if it makes sense for Travel Penticton to take its retreat business out of town rather than give it to members or send its executive director to Australia or award his partner a contract. We’re just putting the information out there.

But by dodging our questions and throwing up roadblocks for six months, Travel Penticton looked like it had something to hide.

It also wasted hours of everyone’s time, when this could have been cleared up back in January with a 10-minute interview.

Part of the problem lies in Travel Penticton’s distrust of the mainstream media, which it claims scares away tourists with sensationalized reports of flooding and forest fires.

It’s clearly more comfortable dealing with submissive travel writers who write nice stories in exchange for all-expenses-paid trips.

The reality though, which Travel Penticton clearly doesn’t accept, is that it has at least a moral obligation to tell the people paying the freight how exactly it spends their $1-million contribution each year.

Sure, it’s an uncomfortable story to tell, but the public has a right to hear it.

— Joe Fries is the city editor of the Penticton Herald