The Sultan of Schmooze

Michael Aller can smooth-talk with the best of them. His political friends in Miami Beach love him for it. His creditors don't.

What's truly astonishing about Aller is how many friendships and contacts he has developed in nearly every segment of Miami Beach life: politics, business, the Jewish community, artists, nightclub trendies, the elderly, upscale society, gays -- you name it. In 90 minutes at Amnesia, he embraces someone from almost all of these groups.

The affection he's elicited is also stoked by the small and large favors he seeks to do for people, and they for him. With Lisa Harris, for example, he gently reminds her that he wants her boss, Nick Nickolas, to participate in a hospitality training program at local hotels. As he circulates around the party, he also promises a charity volunteer he'll arrange for some free food at her event, and even reassures her that she'll have an opportunity to plug the party on his noon radio show.

And like any ward heeler, he seeks to make the system work better for his friends. So when Tanya Manfra, a membership account representative with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, tells him she's been thwarted in her efforts to enroll her fiance's child in a public school summer program, Aller is eager to assist. "Call me tomorrow, you have my number, and I'll make arrangements," he says confidently. (As with some of his other promises, he wasn't able to deliver on this one. But as he said later, "It's not the act, but the effort that counts.")

At one point in the evening he moves near the entrance of the club and begins greeting yet more new arrivals. "Welcome aboard the good ship Lollipop!" he says, adding with self-mocking irony, "Look how we became the official greeter." It's a role he naturally assumes -- but now the city is paying him to do it.

To Aller and the city officials who unanimously approved his job, it is self-evident why the work he does is so necessary. (They try A not always successfully -- to avoid using the term "greeter" when describing Aller's position; it seems too redolent of doormen in uniform or washed-up athletes welcoming people to casinos.) His boosters note that when major conventions come to town, such as last year's gathering of the American Booksellers Association, visitors usually leave complaining about poor service. When the commission voted to award Aller a one-year contract, Mayor Seymour Gelber explained the hospitality crisis that imperiled the city's tourism industry. "We pay no attention to a convention when it comes to the airport," he said. "They're on their own -- they have no opportunity to have a contact person who shows some interest in their well-being. Nobody does that." Michael Aller, though, could do "one great job for us greeting these conventions."

City Manager Roger Carlton added to the praise: "Michael Aller is the right person for this kind of job. He's used to organizing events, and he knows all the ins and outs of the city."

Aller, not surprisingly, concurs with this exalted view of his abilities. "They call me Mr. Miami Beach," he points out. "I'm eminently qualified for this position." Larry Feingold, the city attorney, adds, "If we did a nationwide search, we couldn't have gotten a better greeter." But there was no such search, no advertising of any sort for the position. Aller was the first and only choice, and city officials point out that it's neither legally required nor customary to open up consultant contracts to competition.

Just how the city decided to create the post Aller now fills remains murky. Aller says he'd been talking up the idea for more than two years A but not, he emphasizes, for himself. Carlton, however, concedes that Aller discussed the concept of the job with some people at city hall: "Michael is a nudge, and he was nudging." But that had "nothing to do" with creating the new post or hiring Aller. "This position is necessary; it was not created for Michael Aller," Carlton asserts, despite the fact that the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau provides virtually the same sort of assistance.

Kathy Harper, who heads the bureau's convention services department, says she and her colleagues are pleased with Aller's appointment. "We're so gratified that they're doing this," she says. "We need a liaison so we don't have to work the bureaucracy on our own. Michael adds a higher level of customer service." Carlton calls it "Cadillac service."

The Cadillac service Aller is supposed to provide is spelled out in a memo Carlton wrote to the commissioners and mayor back in February. Aller's role, as described in the memo, is both vague and a bit mundane: He will "enhance the visitors and convention experience." Duties include greeting dignitaries at the airport, ensuring that hotel rooms are ready, enlisting city departments to aid conventions, and acting as a "master of ceremonies" at assorted meetings. Of course, some of these tasks could be done by any competent city staffer -- or just a decent hotel concierge -- but Aller, Carlton says, is "an ambassador of goodwill, a person known for his skills in hospitality and scheduling events. The city is getting its money's worth with Michael Aller."

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