Protocol Chiefs Put City's Best Foot Forward

When the Icelandic ambassador to the United States visited Los Angeles during a recent round-the-world sojourn, he was greeted by a barrage of county protocol officials who did their best to make his brief stay more enjoyable.

The ambassador lunched with a member of the County Board of Supervisors at the exclusive California Club downtown. Then the protocol staff drove him and his wife to see the La Brea Tar Pits, where anthropologists are still excavating ancient fossils. At the end of the afternoon, they presented him with a book about Los Angeles.

Nothing fancy, but cordial.

His visit to San Diego was slightly different. The ambassador bought a map, rented a car and got lost trying to find Sea World. No city officials acknowledged him. He didn't receive a key to the city. There wasn't even a basket of fruit in his hotel room.

"It's just a perfect example of why we need an office of protocol in San Diego," said Jeanne K. Lawrence, one of two prominent San Diegans tapped by Mayor Maureen O'Connor to serve as the city's first chiefs of protocol. "Dignitaries come here all the time, but no one knows it because there's no office here to do the advance work."

The Icelander spent part of his stay at the Hotel del Coronado, the historic inn that Lawrence once helped operate. Ironically, the new protocol chief didn't even know the ambassador was staying there.

"At least I could have sent flowers to his room," she said.

Lawrence's partner is Anne L. Evans, owner and operator of the successful Bahia and Catamaran hotels on Mission Bay.

The mayor selected the high-profile women to serve in her stead when foreign dignitaries, national political figures, state officials and other VIPs come to town. Lawrence and Evans, both unpaid volunteers, work under the direction of Cheryl Ayers, who earns $50,000 a year as the mayor's new director of protocol. Until she began working for O'Connor last fall, Ayers was public relations director for Neiman Marcus in Mission Valley.

Their goal is not only to showcase the city, but to respond to visitors' needs, Ayers said, whether that visitor is the President of the United States or the mayor of Sedona, Ariz. For example, when the wife of a Lodi city councilman was attacked

recently and had to be hospitalized during her stay, Ayers and her office arranged for a place where the councilman could stay until his wife was well enough to leave.

"Protocol is making people feel good," she said. "It's not just receiving heads of state. This is not just an office we've opened up to spend a lot of money and entertain people."

Cringe at Froufrou Image

The trio's biggest fear is that the public might believe the latter. They cringe to think they might be perceived as froufrou socialites with nothing better to do than throw gala bashes. They see themselves as accomplished businesswomen willing to work hard to make the city shine in the eyes of visitors.

"There is no reason San Diego can't have the same patina of glamour as San Francisco or London," said Evans, who was born and raised here.

It's easy to see why the three women are concerned that their office might be seen as little more than the party arm of O'Connor's administration. Lawrence has traveled throughout the world with her now-estranged husband, Larry Lawrence, owner of the Hotel Del. The petite blonde is often pictured on the society pages, most recently linked arm-in-arm with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen during a New Year's Eve party in Paris.

Evans is among the city's premier hoteliers and boasts a bevy of political and civic involvements on her resume. In 1984, she co-chaired the county's Reagan-Bush Committee and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention that year.

Both women attended President Bush's inauguration last month in Washington.

Ayers worked in media relations with Neiman Marcus for almost eight years, and for Robinson's for three years before that. Her high-profile position included appearances on local television shows to discuss high fashion, as well as planning elaborate, black-tie fund-raisers with the store's wealthy patrons. Her name also appears often in San Diego's society news.

But their lives aren't as tony as they appear.

Runs the Family Business

Evans, with her late husband, William, helped turn their Mission Bay hotels into a thriving and lucrative enterprise while raising their five children. She now runs the family business with their help and maintains her civic involvements.

Lawrence holds a master's in business administration from George Washington University and recently received her doctorate in that discipline from United States International University in San Diego. She taught computer science at College of San Mateo before joining the Hotel Del, worked as a consultant in Silicon Valley and once produced and hosted a television series about cooking.

Ayers, a longtime single mother of two, worked her way up from a job in a local advertising agency before Neiman Marcus wooed her away from her publicist's position at Robinson's. One of her most time-consuming jobs as director of protocol is to write congratulation letters to San Diegans who celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries and to young winners of spelling bees.

"Protocol is not all fluff," Ayers said. "Dotting the I's and crossing the T's, making sure we don't make any glaring errors or faux pas, and that we always put our best foot forward. . . . That's what protocol is about."

May Take Some Finesse

Convincing San Diegans that the protocol office is necessary for a growing city with burgeoning foreign interests may take all the finesse these women can muster. Especially when taxpayers are spending $50,000 plus benefits on Ayers' salary, and about $20,000 on her assistant.

City Councilman Bob Filner said he has received queries from constituents asking the same question Evans acknowledges she has heard privately: "Some people say, 'Well, we need a new sewer, why do we need an office of protocol?' "

"Certainly it's an area we can no longer afford to ignore, from a dollar-and-cents standpoint and from an image standpoint," mayoral press secretary Paul Downey said.

There's a direct correlation, he said, between good protocol and the financial interests of the city. Businesses interested in locating here are among those the protocol office hopes to woo with information and support slathered with plain old San Diego hospitality.

"That's kind of been a missing component in the mayor's office for years," Downey said.

As an emerging power along the Pacific Rim, San Diego needs to maintain an office that can coordinate international visits from dignitaries and businessmen, he said.

Handled Sporadically

Before Ayers came on board, Downey handled protocol efforts sporadically. During past administrations, the duties usually fell to whoever was available.

Meanwhile, all six American cities larger than San Diego--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Detroit--have protocol offices, as do many cities in the top 20.

Smaller metropolitan areas along the Pacific Rim, including Seattle and Portland, do not have protocol offices. But they do maintain international-relations departments to handle continuing involvement with foreign--mostly Asian--countries.

Last April, the mayor asked Lawrence and Evans to investigate offices of protocol in other cities and to create goals and guidelines for a similar office here. She told them, "I want a first-class way to receive people in this city," Lawrence recalled. "She's had a chance to see how things in other cities are done and she said, 'Hey, we can do that.' "

"And at very little expense," Evans added.

On their own time and with their own money, the pair met with protocol officers in San Francisco and Los Angeles and attended a conference in New York to get ideas on how to form a similar office in San Diego. Both Lawrence and Evans think of their jobs as professional positions, and perhaps take it even more seriously than a job because they consider themselves ambassadors for San Diego.

Goals Sent to Mayor

The goals they have outlined in a concise, two-page proposal now on the mayor's desk include:

- Showcasing San Diego as a preeminent American city with physical, cultural, educational and commercial assets worthy of attention and interest.

- Bringing the benefits of international exchange to the people of San Diego, and participating in activities that develop an understanding among San Diegans of other cultures and people.

- Reflecting the diversity of local interests, including those involving culture, education, the military, tourism and commerce.

The new protocol chiefs plan to continue their exploration with a visit to Boston. That city recently hosted a Russian festival, and Lawrence and Evans hope to pick up tips that will help them when the Russians come to San Diego next fall for the Soviet Arts Festival.

They have contributed in other ways as well. Evans welcomed Princess Christina of Sweden to San Diego with a party at the Bahia, which she hosted and paid for.

"It should be made clear we are not competing for funds. . . . This is a separate and privately run office," Evans said.

According to other cities, it's not unusual for wealthy, socially prominent business executives to start a city's initial protocol efforts. In San Francisco, apparel magnate Cyril Magnin, founder of I. Magnin and the now-defunct Joseph Magnin clothing stores, opened that city's Office of Protocol using his own money. It is now run by the city, but several prominent business people still volunteer their time.

Said Evans: "This city is evolving. . . . We have a destiny. And to share in that, well, I just couldn't wait."

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