An early career in hotel sales and operations gave Tammy Blount-Canavan the foundation to succeed in the industry she’s been part of for 30 years.
“I started in hotel sales and operations and then was recruited into the CVB arena, where I started in an entry-level position and worked my way around different departments and levels of responsibility. It was a good path in that I had an excellent understanding of our primary stakeholders before venturing into the CVB world, and I have walked in the shoes of nearly all the team members I now ask [them] to walk in themselves.”
The way she sees challenges in her career says a lot about her. “The primary challenges were probably that there are more opportunities to do meaningful, cool things than there is time to do them all properly.”
Like others, she’s faced some “resistance” as a woman in the industry, but that has done little to diminish her and perhaps even made her stronger and more resilient. “Certainly there are some circles that are male dominant and female resistant,” she says, “but those circles have reduced considerably over the span of my career. At first I asked for help to open conversations from established men in those circles. Now that I’m more established myself, I feel quite comfortable bringing attention to such situations. At that point, if they’re not remedied or interested in my contributions, I simply make them elsewhere.”
In terms of her own success, Blount-Canavan thinks she owes it primarily to three critical traits: “Being a good listener, empathy and the power of persuasion.”
She sees differences in how men and women may lead a DMO, but says good leadership isn’t about gender. “I think women and men are very different, but I don’t think leadership styles are gender specific. We all want to operate in an environment of respect regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or other factors that people sometimes think are more differentiating than they truly are.”
Her advice to the young women who may eventually walk in her shoes is straightforward: “Be patient, persistent, understanding and claim mentors. Even the most powerful of people will often take time to help someone who respectfully asks for it.”
A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Blount-Canavan has been president and CEO of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau for the past seven years. She served on the executive committee of Destinations International, and in 2017 became the fifth woman in 100 years to become Destinations International’s chair.
She has been recognized as one of the 25 Most Influential People in the meetings industry and as one of the Top-25 Most Influential Women in the industry. In 2015, she was named CEO of the Year. Her background includes the executive leadership position as CEO of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, where she was also the architect and inaugural chair of the Washington Tourism Alliance. Additionally, she was on the leadership team of Tourism Vancouver for more than a decade.
Tania Armenta’s road to the CVB began in hospitality while still a student at the University of Nebraska.
“I worked in the hotel industry throughout college, which gave me a great introduction to the hospitality industry. Then, early in my career, I decided to move back to my home state of New Mexico. I had a background in marketing and public relations and was just about to go to work for an agency when someone mentioned that the Albuquerque CVB was looking to create a new public relations division. I had no idea what a CVB was, but I loved the concept of getting PR experience while promoting my home state. I thought I’d be here two or three years, but I fell in love with the industry, our organization, mission and the team.”
It’s creating successful teams that Armenta lists as one of her most significant accomplishments and a measure of her success. “I am very proud of the team we’ve assembled here. It’s a combination of veterans and new industry professionals. Their determination is undeniable, and Albuquerque and our organization are prospering due to their passion and perseverance.”
Like other jobs, she says this one comes with some challenges. “The DMO world is one of many, many stakeholders and I had to learn early on not to let the sometimes negative voices and opinions of the minority influence me too much. To stay in this industry, you definitely need resiliency and thick skin. Many of our stakeholders benefit directly from our work, so at times the lines are blurred between what is good for them and what is good for the destination.”
Armenta doesn’t see her gender as a critical factor in her career. “I’ve had moments where I’ve felt that I was not being taken as seriously as the men in the room. I think it was a combination of being female and typically the youngest in the room as well. However, I have also been fortunate to have some amazing and generous male mentors who believed in me and opened doors for me.”
While she thinks women in leadership may more readily bring inclusivity to the table, she says the core traits of leadership are the same for men and women.
“I think the best leaders, regardless of gender, know their audience, speak the kind truth, are persuasive, adaptable, team-oriented and have tremendous grit and strength,” Armenta says. ”At Visit Albuquerque, we have a core set of values that we strive to exhibit and share each day.”
To young women she offers this advice: “Believe in yourself, identify great mentors, stay focused and prioritize work to make the greatest impact.”
Armenta has been with Visit Albuquerque for 20 years and has led the organization for the past three. She also serves on the board of U.S. Travel Association’s Destinations Council, the Destinations International DMAP Board and the Jennifer Riordan Foundation Advisory Board, and she chairs the New Mexico Hospitality Association.
In 2012 she was named Tourism Professional of the Year in New Mexico and is a former recipient of the 40 Under Forty awards by Albuquerque Business First. She has a BA in journalism and mass communication with an emphasis in advertising and public relations and a minor in Spanish from the University of Nebraska.
“I’ve never really felt there was an obstacle or challenge I couldn’t overcome. It’s always just a question of how,” says Kathleen Ratcliffe, who has been at the helm of Explore St. Louis since 2006.
“My first job in the industry was director of the Carbondale, IL convention and tourism bureau, which was a start-up organization. For women just getting into the industry, it’s probably a good path for developing many skills that can be applied to positions in larger organizations and other sectors. As the director of a start-up CVB with no other staff and extremely limited resources, I had to be creative and fearless in moving the organization forward.”
One major challenge, she says, is that she didn’t have any real training for that job. “Every step I took was a learning experience, either one that was successful or one that was an educational opportunity for me in how to do things differently. I see obstacles as things to work around, not things to stop me.”
Ratcliffe recalls many times when gender came into play — and sometimes still does. “I could name hundreds of times where I have been the only woman in the room negotiating a deal or discussing a difficult subject within the community. I’ve also had many instances where someone around the table should be talking to me, but instead talks to someone who works for me because that person happens to be a man. It’s quite funny, actually. I’ve also faced some challenges at times with the ‘sports guys’ in the community who assume that a woman doesn’t know anything about sports or doesn’t understand how sports are so much more important than a business event (of course, they know nothing about business events if they think that!). They’ll go to my male board chairman, members of our board or members of our staff who are men in order to try to get something when they should be talking to me. That tactic doesn’t end up working for them.”
Yet Ratcliffe says of gender differences among leaders, “I don’t think there are any hard and fast distinctions between men and women; we’re all unique beings. However, generally I think women tend to be a little more detail focused, which can lead to an organization that has more structure and established measurable goals. Certainly, that’s not always the case, nor is it always the case that women leaders tend to be a little more perceptive about the people around them. But I think that is also often true.”
The ability to hire well and build great teams, like the one she currently has, is something Ratcliffe counts among her accomplishments as a leader. “I also worked with great teams in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Denver and still maintain many of those relationships years later. The most significant instance was halting the widespread cancellation of meetings for future years in New Orleans after Katrina. That effort required every ounce of will power in my body and the enormous heart and soul of every member of our team. I still tear up when I think of all of them.”
Her advice for women entering the industry now is twofold. First and foremost, she says, they should know that the new generation of women have it easier in business than my generation had, and my generation had it easier than the generation of women before us. “So, don’t take things for granted. Make sure you carry other women forward. Remember that you’re standing on the shoulders of women who have gone before you and paved the way for you. Work hard, always be ethical, be fearless but not foolish.”
Ratcliffe is the president of Explore St. Louis, responsible for the sales and marketing of St. Louis as a destination for visitors and the operations of both the Cervantes Convention Center and The Dome at America’s Center. Ratcliffe is a past international chairwoman of MPI and has served on the board of Destinations International, receiving awards from both. She serves on the board of PCMA, and most recently, she received the Apex Award from Black Meetings & Tourism. She was named one of the Most Influential Businesswomen in St. Louis by the St. Louis Business Journal, a Leader of Distinction by the YWCA of Metro St. Louis, and she received a Regional Leadership Award from the St. Louis Community Empowerment Foundation.
Maura Gast is nothing if not hands-on. She led the team that delivered the architecturally distinctive Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas on-time and under budget and has oversight of its day-to-day operations. She’s been with the Irving, TX CVB for 28 years, becoming its executive director in 2003.
Getting there was hardly a straight line. “My path, like that of most of my peers, was accidental. I had prior careers in publishing and retail, but it was active involvement in an advertising trade association that was the connection that ended up opening the doors that brought me to the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau.”
Gast’s “building blocks” for DMO/community shared success are strategic. “Build a place where people want to visit, and you’ll build a place where people want to live. Build a place where people want to live, and you’ll build a place where people want to work. Build a place where people want to work, and you’ll build a place where business has to be. Build a place where business has to be, and you’ll build a place where people have to visit. It all starts with the visit, and the visit starts with us.”
She says her own success has largely been defined by “tenacity, persistence, stubbornness and a willingness to continue learning, including learning from my mistakes.”
Those traits no doubt helped when issues of gender put obstacles in her way — “many places, many times,” she says. “But that’s just a fact of life. You ‘woman up’ and just do your job and you do it to the very best of your ability.”
She has pondered the question as to whether female and male leaders are different. “I really wrestle with this distinction about how women lead vs. how men lead. We all have individual skills and abilities, which we temper or top with knowledge and experience and that’s what we bring to the table. Our experiences along the way shape us much more so than our genes. That said,” she notes, “we encounter different experiences and there are different standards and rules set for us as women — the expectations and assumptions are different than they are for men. So it’s what we do with our experiences, as well as our experience and skills, that shape how we lead.”
Gast is proud of the positive growth in Irving during her time at the CVB, but some successes stand out. “I’m proud of the things we’ve been able to get done in Irving, thanks to a long-tenured team and long-tenured community leaders and volunteers,” she says. “Certainly the convention center, Toyota Music Factory and The Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas hotel, which just opened, are key to those.”
She advises the young women entering or rising in the tourism industry to not wait to be asked to the table. “Pull up a seat for yourself. Volunteer for the messy, hard work that no one else wants to take on. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — but make sure you learn from every one of them.”
Gast has lived and led by her own words for many years. Her chairmanship of the (then) DMAI 2008 Futures Study pushed to the forefront that which she continues to champion — a seat at the tables that matter for the industry.
Gast is a former chair of Destinations International and currently chairs its Certified Destination Management Executive Board of Directors. She also serves on the Destination Marketing Accreditation Program board as its chair-elect and is a member of the DestinationNEXT task force as well as a DestinationNEXT facilitator. Additionally, she serves on boards for the Heritage Society, Rotary, La Cima Club, Salvation Army Advisory Council and Chamber of Commerce, and she’s a past chair of the Dallas Advertising League/AAF-Dallas. Gast has earned the designation of Fellow, Certified Destination Management Executive (FCDME). In 2016 the Dallas Business Journal recognized her in its inaugural Women In Tourism Awards. In 2015, she was honored with the La Cima Legacy Award for her contributions to the Irving community. She has also been named a Top-25 Extraordinary Mind by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International. She’s the recipient of an Irving Schools Foundation Fellow, and in 2017 was recognized by the NAACP Irving-Carrollton Branch with the Fletcher Yates Community Service Award.
Julie Coker Graham has been in her present position since 2016, and before that held other positions at the CVB. But she says it was her first job in the industry that helped shape her career.
“My first job in the industry was as a server at Wilmington, DE’s Mister Steak, which truly helped inform my customer-first focus. I believe everyone should serve food at some point; the perspective it provides within the service industries is invaluable.”
She went on to graduate magna cum laude from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI and during 20 years with Hyatt worked her way up from management trainee to general manager of Hyatt Penn’s Landing. Like many leaders, she sees challenges as learning opportunities.
“Often, women leaders believe if you keep your head down and work hard you’ll achieve success. The lesson I learned is that it’s not about working harder but working more strategically,” she says. “Hard work is part of the equation, but equally important is networking and being strategic about business relationships and personal and professional growth.”
She also thinks that challenges, whether related to gender or something else, make you stronger. “I believe anytime you’re in the minority there will be challenges. You have to work a little harder to be heard. You’re not always afforded the same opportunities as others. You often have to fight for a seat at the table. Those challenges make you stronger and more competitive. In my career, all obstacles, temporary diversions or setbacks have made me the leader I am,” she says. “They have motivated me to think more strategically, fight harder and most importantly, prove others wrong. They’ve also made me more focused on creating a path forward for those who come behind me.”
While she acknowledges that women are often considered more nurturing and better communicators than men, she says those are characteristics all leaders should have. Moreover, differences are good. “I’m a firm believer in the power that diversity of thought brings to teams, and to achieve this you need all voices and resources at the table” she says. “I work hard every day to cultivate a culture of mutual respect for differing thoughts and dissenting opinions. I’ve worked for some outstanding bosses — men and women — and we all bring our unique selves to the table.”
A passionate football fan, Coker Graham names the 2017 NFL draft hosted by Philadelphia as an event she’s truly proud of. “I’ve never been prouder than when Adam Schefter of ESPN said, ‘Props to the people of Philadelphia. That’s how you host a draft. No other city has injected that much energy, electricity, excitement in a draft.’ It was an amazing experience for me and my entire team to work with the NFL, and it was an incredibly prideful moment for the city of Philadelphia.”
Success, however, is about the team. “The team around me is the stick by which I measure success. It comes down to collaboration and inclusivity,” she says. “Throughout my career, I’ve been laser focused on ensuring I surround myself with people who think differently, come from different backgrounds and approach problem solving from different priorities and perspectives.”
As a role model and mentor, Coker Graham advises, “Bring your true self to the work environment. Often we fall into the trap of becoming someone others want us to be. Trust in your talent and natural abilities and bring those assets to the table. Know your worth and accentuate your positive attributes.”
She encourages young women to always ensure they have a seat at the table. “But for those moments you don’t,” she says, “identify an advocate who knows and understands your goals and vision.”
As president & CEO, Coker Graham oversaw the CVB’s role in the 2017 NFL Draft and the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which together had a combined economic impact of $325 million for Philadelphia. She serves on numerous industry boards, including the Executive Committees for U.S. Travel Association and Destinations International. In 2018, she began her tenure as co-chair for U.S. Travel’s Meetings Mean Business Coalition and began serving as the Secretary-Treasurer for IAEE’s Executive Committee. She serves on multiple boards and committees in Philadelphia, including the Philadelphia International Airport Advisory Committee and Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Committee, and she co-chairs the Mayor’s Shared Spaces Initiative to combat homelessness.
Rachel Sacco joined the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce in 1986. In 2001, she became the first president and CEO of Scottsdale’s CVB, overseeing its name change to Experience Scottsdale in 2016. Serendipity, she says, launched her career in tourism.
“After graduating from Arizona State University, I began hosting seminars at a communications company. Following a presentation one day, a gentleman approached me. He was leaving his current job and thought I would be the perfect replacement. I gave him my phone number, went through an interview and landed the position. That’s how I found my life’s work because that’s when I was hired by the Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.”
Sacco says the tourism industry is one she’d absolutely recommend for women because it offers so many opportunities for creativity and collaboration “This industry requires hard work and discipline, but on so many levels it’s about connecting people through travel, changing their lives and opening them up to the world. It’s magic.”
She had few role models at the start. “In the 1970s and ‘80s there were very few role models for women who worked outside the home. I made the mistake of thinking that strength came in a suit with a loud voice. When I first became a leader, I tried to emulate my male counterparts, which didn’t work for me or my staff. After a challenging few years, I started anew. I had the same title and worked in the same office environment but changed my perspective and began to lead through kindness and openness. When I made that shift, I began to see transformational changes that led to a strong, connected corporate culture and many successes in business.”
Sacco thinks women are ‘hard-wired’ for leadership. ”Women, in particular, come into the world with qualities of compassion, intuition and inclusiveness, all important leadership qualities at work and home. We lead through openness, and we often surrender to the greater good in situations that require us to lead from behind rather than in front.”
Inclusiveness has been Sacco’s hallmark. She’s especially proud of bringing together diverse community entities to work together toward shared goals. “Early on we convinced competing hoteliers to participate, for the first time, in a joint marketing campaign. Our hoteliers still understand the importance of collaborating to promote the destination as a whole. Several years ago, I organized a consortium of DMOs. Together we’ve worked on supporting and leveraging successful bids for Super Bowls, Final Four Championships and other mega events. We’ve joined forces to make our cities and state shine, including attracting new international air service. We all may be friendly competitors, yet we can help each other be more successful.”
Sacco links her success to solid research, strategy and partnerships. “Every program and initiative Experience Scottsdale tackles is grounded in industry research, trends and strategies. As a membership-based organization, we rely on partnerships with area tourism and hospitality businesses. As a nonprofit entity, we depend on relationships with government officials in the city of Scottsdale and town of Paradise Valley. My team and I work hard to maintain these relationships, to ensure that our partners receive a strong return on their investment and our citizens benefit from tourism’s contributions. “
Her philosophy sets the stage for success across all areas. “I tell every employee I hire that I expect them to operate as if they were CEO of their own area, whether they’re in the mailroom, a cubicle or a vice president’s office.”
That means, she says, letting go of who they think they’re supposed to be and embracing who they really are, being creative and unafraid of making mistakes and being responsible not just for themselves but for their team.
Sacco is a national board member for the U.S. Travel Association and sits on the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association board. In 2016, the Past Presidents’ Council of the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce inducted Sacco into Scottsdale’s History Hall of Fame, recognizing her contributions to the hospitality industry. She was also inducted into the Arizona Governor’s Tourism Hall of Fame. In 2015, the Rotary Club of Scottsdale honored her with the Corporate Club Member Service Above Self Award for her outstanding service and volunteerism. In 2018, Arizona Foothills recognized her as one of the Most Influential Phoenicians and Most Influential in Valley Tourism.
Julie Calvert loves her job. “I’m a Cincinnati native. I was born loving Cincinnati and have such pride in my hometown.”
Early work as a journalist helped shape Calvert’s career. “After receiving my degree in English (concentration in journalism) from Miami University (Ohio), I began working as a reporter in Boston, and then Cleveland. Experience in media gave me perspective in terms of what makes a good story, how the public responds to certain topics and how communications professionals get their messages across. I came back to Cincinnati and, through a variety of experiences, found my way to the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau. Since then, I’ve been hooked. My entire career has been focused on driving awareness, building reputation, mobilizing resources and celebrating the various voices, backgrounds and viewpoints that make a community.”
Calvert thinks adapting to change is part of leadership. “The tourism and hospitality industries have been changing and evolving, as has Cincinnati,” she says. “Through my career, it’s been important that I adapt and evolve as well, whether it’s in setting priorities, managing different leadership styles or understanding the real needs of our community. Change can be seen as a challenge, but I think it’s all about perspective. For me, change has continued to bring new opportunities, has opened doors and has led to experiences that have helped define my life, and in turn, my career.”
When faced with challenges or criticism, she says it’s attitude and colleagues that make the difference. “I believe it’s critical to empower, foster and support the advocates and embrace critics. In the end, the desired outcome is the same — to be the best version of ourselves and of our community,” she says. “Many of the leaders and colleagues I’ve had throughout the years have helped shape my experience and have had a hand in getting me to this point. I’ve been fortunate. Now, as the CEO of the CVB, I feel it’s my responsibility to pay it forward and be that same type of leader for the people that I work with.”
While Cincinnati was once under the radar, that’s no longer the case. “There’s a sense of reinvigorated pride that’s spreading beyond our region. I’m proud to be part of this Cincinnati ‘moment in time’ where we’re realizing the true impact that tourism, meetings and conventions are having on our destination. We are so honored to play our part.”
Success for Calvert isn’t an individual accomplishment. “If we as a CVB and community are performing at a high level — if we’re continuing to see real progress, attracting business and visitors, standing together as a unified industry and region — then we will be successful. From a personal standpoint, success means continuing to learn, striving to make a place, whether a city or an office, better than it was, and helping and supporting good people along the way.”
For young women in the industry today, Calvert says opportunities abound. “There are so many opportunities for young, passionate women to be impactful, meaningful leaders in this industry,” she says. “It’s important to find your true passion and be willing to work for it. A strong, committed work ethic is the difference between good and great. Leadership also requires a thoughtful balance between confidence and humility — the strength of character to be firm in your beliefs and to be self-assured but also understanding that there is always something to be learned.”
Prior to her appointment as president and CEO of Cincinnati USA CVB in 2018, Calvert served as executive director of Source Cincinnati and was vice president of communications and strategic developments at Cincinnati USA CVB from 2001-2016. Appreciating and building on diversity is a hallmark of her career. She helped build the CVB’s Supplier Diversity Program and multicultural marketing channel and made diversity a key part of Source Cincinnati’s strategic vision. In 2019, Calvert was included in the Cincinnati 300, a compilation of the city’s top 300 business leaders, along with a spot in the Power 100, a list of the 100 most influential business, political and community leaders in the Cincinnati region. She serves on the Hamilton County Commission on Women and Girls and the Cincinnati Music Festival board.
Casandra Matej is a dynamic leader who has brought significant changes to San Antonio’s $15.2 billion hospitality industry since becoming Visit San Antonio’s president and CEO eight years ago. One of her first jobs brought her to the world of CVBs.
“An entry-level position in hospitality was the foundation for my career,” she says. “After graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, I joined what was then the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, where I gained my first experience with hotels, CVBs and meeting planning. Later in my career, I had the opportunity to work with Hyatt Hotels and Starwood Hotels & Resorts and learn from great leaders at those companies before eventually going on to serve as senior vice-president of sales and services for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. These diverse industry experiences were crucial in preparing me for my current role.”
She says she’d absolutely recommend this journey for anyone, male or female, looking to move up in the industry. “Compile as much experience as you can, cultivate a heart of service and keep aiming to improve and grow,” she advises.
Being ready to take advantage of opportunity is something Matej is passionate about. “I learned throughout my career to be flexible in relation to the opportunities before me. For instance, six months after I started at the Dallas CVB, I was offered a position in Washington, DC. It was a big move for me, but I knew it was important. I took it, and it was a challenge that paid off. In this industry, you need to seize those chances.”
Although Matej notes that the hospitality and tourism industries can be male dominated, she hasn’t experienced that as a major obstacle. “I think many other women leaders paved the way, and I will be forever grateful,” she says. “I’m not easily intimidated and haven’t allowed myself to be held back by gender, and here’s my real motivation: I have two young children, including a 10-year-old daughter. It’s important to me that she sees that if she aims to be a leader, she can do whatever she wants. I’m an example for her, and I try to be a mentor and example for younger professionals as well.”
Whether leaders are male or female, Matej says the mission is the same. “Every leader has to establish a roadmap for success. We do that by leading by example and cultivating respect and loyalty from those throughout the organization and beyond. Simply put, an executive, male or female, has to have everyone working on the same page for the mission to be accomplished.”
Matej was instrumental in effecting major changes at San Antonio’s CVB, and that’s something she takes pride in. “I’m proud of our organization’s evolution from the former Convention & Visitors Bureau to Visit San Antonio, a public-private nonprofit. With this shift, we’re more streamlined and can serve our customers in a more efficient and impactful manner. With this shift, our city has also made major upgrades to the Henry B. González Convention Center and the Alamodome, and we’ve formed more meaningful relationships with community partners, all designed to provide a better experience to our clients.”
Like other leaders, she thinks it’s important for anyone coming up in the industry to find mentors, advisers and supporters along the way. Beyond that, she says, “Be passionate. Be driven to succeed. Command respect from everyone around you. And, hey, it’s the tourism and hospitality industry. We sell fun, and we have fun doing it.”
Matej has more than 25 years in tourism. Among her many accomplishments are joining Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association to create a Tourism Public Improvement District, providing an additional, vital revenue resource for marketing the city of San Antonio . In 2014, she spearheaded the creation of Synchronicities, a partnership with Baltimore, MD and Anaheim, CA, designed to assist meeting professionals in maximizing return on investment. She is currently secretary for the board of directors of the U.S. Travel Association, immediate past chair of the Texas Travel Industry Association board and a member of the Texas Association of Business board. She’s also in the 2017 Class of the Texas Lyceum.
Matej received the 2015 San Antonio Business Journal’s Women in Leadership Award and the LGBT Chamber’s Ally of the Year Award in 2018.
Carrie Westergard has been executive director at the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau for four years. In her more than two decades in the hospitality industry, her work has included everything from hotels and property management to public transportation and the chamber of commerce.
“While in college I was a waitress at a resort and ultimately went into sales there when an opportunity presented itself. Hospitality is one of those industries that gets in your blood — I think those who are in the industry know what I’m talking about. I would recommend that anyone explore the hospitality and convention world, without a doubt. There’s no right or wrong way to get started. Many avenues will allow you to meet others in the industry, and that connectivity is one of the most valuable assets to develop along your path.”
As a woman in this industry, Westergard says, “Other than having to get used to handshakes instead of hugs, I’m sure there has been pay inequity over the years. But my philosophy has always been to dive into work, show results and prove my value. No matter where I am in the industry, I’ve needed to be OK with learning from the ground up while also keeping my eye on what I wanted to accomplish and keeping my goals in mind.”
Her challenges along the way relate to doing her job to the best of her ability. “I have two primary challenges: transition and funding. Navigating the many different personalities that change as terms expire and people move on is a constant challenge in this industry. In this line of work, we’re predominantly funded through hotel taxes, municipalities and/or agencies that have boards and oversight. As board members, council members and directors’ terms expire and new people arrive, we’re left to re-educate them on our program and its value.”
She describes her leadership style as one of open communication, transparency and camaraderie. “I believe that egos need to be left at the door and everyone needs to pitch in if we want to get anything done. I value the wonderful team I’ve built around me that all collaborate and contribute to the success of this organization.”
And the organization is definitely succeeding these days. “When I joined the Boise CVB, our organization was extremely underfunded and understaffed. Since then, it has become a viable business that has a healthy position in the marketplace and a defined culture of collaboration and transparency. In four years we’ve doubled the staff and nearly doubled the budget, without adding waste. We’ve been strategic and scrappy. Those attributes have allowed us to reconnect with community partners, develop local visibility and even create a national profile through our concentrated media relations work.”
But success, Westergard notes, is ultimately defined by the success of the community. “If the community is vibrant, sees economic impact and my team has the tools needed to do good work, that is success to me. I love hearing how great Boise is doing and I smile knowing that we had a small part of making that happen.”
The message she passes on to a new generation of women coming up through the ranks is straightforward: “Don’t be afraid to go after what you want. You’ll need to work hard, ask for help from others, show your worth and stay connected. But if you do, you’ll get there.”
Most of Westergard’s career in tourism and hospitality has been in Idaho. She was the marketing director of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau for 15 years. For four years she facilitated programs, events and constituent relations for the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce as community relations director. In her first year at the Boise CVB, she oversaw the rollout of a new website, the merger of the organization with the Boise Metro Chamber, and growth of the sports event marketing function of the CVB. Westergard serves on the boards of the Girls on the Run Treasure Valley and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Idaho and is a mentor for Junior Achievement.
Janet Zaldua has been CEO of the Marina del Rey Convention & Visitors Bureau for six years. She discovered the tourism industry via a job as a marketing manager in a museum.
“I enjoyed the creativity and community relations aspects of the job and looked for opportunities to collaborate with community partners, volunteer, build relationships and network. From the museum, I moved to Los Angeles County and transitioned into a role in city government. I was involved in sponsorship development, marketing and events. That experience allowed me to showcase my abilities and talents, which opened doors. Eventually, I began working for a CVB, where I was able to strengthen and develop my skills in destination marketing, communications and tourism. I established meaningful relationships with industry leaders and mentors along the way, and each step was a learning opportunity that led me to a growth opportunity.”
There’s no single route to a career, and Zaldua encourages others with words that apply to any career path. “Bloom wherever you’re planted. Give 110 percent, maintain a positive attitude and a strong work ethic. Build relationships with community partners and industry leaders. Establish your personal brand and reputation. Never compromise your standards and think long term. The right opportunity will come for the next transition in your career. And if things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like, have faith. In every step of your career, there’s a lesson to be learned that will make you better equipped for the next level.”
Starting out in a career isn’t without challenges. “When you’re first starting out, at the bottom so to speak, and you’re striving to grow and learn and leap to the next step, some people may feel threatened by your achievements and success,” Zaldua says. “Some may try to hold you back and that can be discouraging. As you move forward to the place you want to be, those conflicts become fewer. Having a mentor early on with whom to discuss challenges and solutions is helpful. Eventually, as I became more involved in the industry and began meeting more leaders, those mentorship relationships were developed and were incredibly valuable. There were times when I bounced challenges off of them to get their perspective. It was helpful to hear about their similar experiences and how they handled it. I cherish those relationships.”
Zaldua believes that men and women communicate differently. “Women often have a strong intuitive and nurturing sense. Both [men and women] bring something valuable to the table, and finding the right balance of strengths, communications styles and talents from the staff that make up the overall team will ultimately determine the success of the organization. Building the right team and striving toward the same mission and shared goals is essential.”
Zaldua credits her predecessor at the Marina del Rey CVB with creating a strong foundation and reputation for the organization, and she’s proud of building on that foundation. “I’m most proud of working to increase our budget by more than 163 percent in five years, which has allowed us to triple our full-time staff, increase our marketing efforts, develop a dedicated group sales effort for the Marina and develop a stronger cohesive brand for the destination. I’m looking forward to continued growth.”
Everyone defines success differently. Zaldua says one measure for her is, “Being in the right place for the season you are in, in life and having passion for what you do,” she adds. “But equally important is doing something in your day-to-day life that has an impact on others — showing kindness, giving to causes that have a positive impact in the world, using your influence and success for the greater good and to strengthen and mentor others. Having balance in life and making time for friends, family and my faith are also key for my happiness and success.”
Under Zaldua’s leadership, Marina del Rey’s brand has been refreshed with vibrant and active imagery and messaging that boasts a new trademarked description, “L.A.’s Marina.” The organization has grown to include a dedicated sales effort aimed at bringing group business to the Marina’s hotels and event venues.
Meg Winchester took on the role of president and CEO of Visit Spokane in January 2019. A certified meeting planner (CMP), Winchester understands the important role of meetings and conventions in a city’s economy firsthand. She’s been in the industry for 30 years, starting just after college.
“I was one of the lucky ones who fell into this industry after college,” she says. “I started in the catering field and was honored to be asked to join the citywide sales team in San Diego in 1998. I feel that being in the operations side of the hospitality industry gave me the ability to understand the holistic nature of our business, and it has made me more well-rounded in understanding all sides of our industry.”
We may all forget that once there wasn’t an internet, but Winchester points to the introduction of the internet as an early challenge, and one that continues to create the need for an ongoing learning curve. “The introduction of the internet was a challenge. It’s also amazing how fast everything now changes in every sector, which makes it a challenge to keep up with and/or ahead of positioning in terms of marketing your destination.”
And like many women in the field, Winchester also points to the challenges of creating a true work/life balance. But in terms of gender itself being an issue, she doesn’t see it that way. “I tend to put my head down and work hard at whatever challenges me,” she says. “I feel that I was fairly treated throughout my career based on work ethics and determination.”
When it comes to leadership, though, Winchester thinks women often have the edge. “I feel that women are more compassionate by nature and will sometimes not own their leadership value. With that said, however, in my opinion, women tend to work harder in these areas and make amazing leaders.”
Working with a successful team is a theme for many in leadership positions and Winchester is no exception. She thinks her accomplishments and success are very much tied to teamwork. “Working with a team that consistently meets and exceeds goals and instilling a culture of teamwork and job satisfaction” is high on her list of accomplishments. She sees her successes as very much part of that same team effort, noting that, “It’s the team and stakeholders and all the great accomplishments we reach every day” that define that success.
Like others, Winchester advises young women coming into the industry to work hard. But also, she says, “Always enjoy your journey and be grateful. Find smart women to follow and never lose sight of who you are — never, never compromise that.”
Prior to joining Visit Spokane, Winchester was the director of the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. During her tenure there, she led a staff of 17 sales and marketing professionals, welcoming more than seven million tourists to Galveston each year.
Her career path also took her to the Greater Houston CVB and San Diego CVB sales teams. Being involved with the tourism industry through partnerships and innovative collaborations has always been a priority.
Winchester graduated from Southwest Texas State University with a BA in Journalism. She attained her CMP designation in 1998 and has been an active member of Destinations International, PCMA and many other industry associations throughout her career.
This is Martha Sheridan’s first year as president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, but she’s been in the industry since 1987, most recently as CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“I got hooked on the tourism industry during college when I was a tour guide at one of the magnificent Newport mansions. I started my destination marketing career at a small DMO in southern Rhode Island in the late ‘80s, and from there worked my way up through various roles at CVBs in Rhode Island. Starting at a small CVB is a great way to learn the industry and make contacts.”
Sheridan says early on gender definitely impacted the acceleration of her career. “I was a mother of three and in interviews I was often asked about balancing motherhood and career aspirations. I’m certain this question never comes up for men. Willingness to relocate was also a challenge as I didn’t want to uproot my young family.”
That said, she has no regrets about her choices, wouldn’t change a thing and highly recommends this industry to other women.
While she says leadership styles vary based on many factors, Sheridan doesn’t necessarily see those variations as gender related. “I have to say that from what I’ve observed in my extraordinary network of CVB leaders, both male and female, each one brings a different style to their organization, but they are all highly effective and successful in their roles.”
In terms of her own success that has come with leadership, she says it’s grounded in always understanding that everything that one accomplishes is the result of teamwork and hard work. “While in Providence, I was once told that my agency was the most effective economic development agency in the state. That’s what I have always strived for and hearing others acknowledge that was huge validation for the efforts of my team and board.”
Of all her accomplishments, however, it’s this new role that is at the top. “Taking on this role as president and CEO of the Greater Boston CVB is the pinnacle for me. Leading the team that sells and markets this iconic and revolutionary city is an honor and a privilege. I look forward to working with industry leaders in this community to take this organization to new heights.”
There will undoubtedly be many young women who will follow in Sheridan’s footsteps in the tourism industry, and to them she says, “Be humble, listen, learn and don’t be afraid to take risks. Oh, and have thick skin because you will need it.”
A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Sheridan has over 25 years of experience in destination marketing. She is past chair of the Destination Marketing Association International. She holds or has held leadership positions with local, regional and national organizations including the U.S. Travel Association, Destinations International Foundation, the RI Hospitality and Tourism Association Education Foundation, MPI New England Chapter and the New England Society of Convention & Visitors Bureaus. Sheridan is the recipient of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s (RIHA) Mary Brennan Tourism Award for outstanding achievement in tourism promotion, and in 2010 was named RIHA Woman of the Year. In 2014, she was presented with the Morris J. Gaebe Profile in Excellence Award from Junior Achievement of Rhode Island, that organization’s highest honor.C&IT