Omni confirms DP benefits for convention hotel

ROOMS WITH VIEWS | Workers put the finishing touches on the pool deck this week at Dallas’ convention center hotel, as the downtown skyline looms behind them. The hotel is scheduled to open Nov. 11. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

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Facility owned by city of Dallas to open Nov. 11

JOHN WRIGHT | Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

A spokeswoman for Omni Hotels confirmed this week that the company will offer domestic partner benefits to its employees at Dallas’ convention center hotel, slated to open next month.

It marks the first time a representative from Irving-based Omni Hotels has stated directly that the company plans to offer DP benefits at the city-owned facility.

Omni, which operates 50 luxury hotels in North America, is one of the few major lodging chains that doesn’t offer DP benefits across the board. However, Omni spokeswoman Caryn Kboudi said the company opted to do so at the convention center hotel because the facility is owned by the city, which has offered DP benefits to its employees since 2004.

“We’re pleased to do it, and it’s in keeping with the city of Dallas’ practices,” Kboudi said.

Kboudi said the convention center hotel, slated to open Nov. 11, will initially employ 600-650 people, about 80 percent of whom will be full time and eligible for benefits. At “peak performance,” the hotel could employ up to 800 people, she said.

The question of whether Omni Hotels would offer DP benefits at the facility was first raised in a Dallas Voice article in April 2009 — two months after the city had signed a 15-year operating agreement with the company for the $500 million hotel.

The article appeared days before the vote on a referendum aimed at barring the city from building and owning the hotel. Mayor Tom Leppert, a major supporter of the hotel, assured the newspaper that he would convince the company to offer DP benefits, even though it had not been considered as part of the operating agreement.

The referendum was defeated, and six weeks later, both Leppert’s office and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce announced that Omni had agreed to offer DP benefits — although the company wouldn’t confirm it at the time.

“Until you [Dallas Voice] raised the issue, it wasn’t on people’s radar,” said Chris Heinbaugh, who’s openly gay and was Leppert’s chief of staff. “A light bulb went off. It was a significant step for the city.”

It reportedly marked the first time the city has prompted a contractor to offer DP benefits.

Heinbaugh, who now works for the AT&T Performing Arts Center, declined to discuss in detail the negotiations that led to Omni’s commitment to offer DP benefits. Leppert is running for U.S. Senate as a Republican and has come out against both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

A spokesman for Leppert’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In addition to agreeing to offer DP benefits, Omni Hotels joined the North Texas GLBT Chamber in 2009. Tony Vedda, president and CEO of the chamber, said this week the company remains a silver level corporate member, which means an annual contribution of $5,000 to the organization.

“I certainly assumed that they were going to stick to their word [on DP benefits],” Vedda said. “It would be devastating if we were told one thing and something else occurred.”

Vedda said the chamber would also like to see Omni offer DP benefits at its publicly owned convention center hotel in Fort Worth. Fort Worth began offering domestic partner benefits to municipal employees last year.

—  John Wright