Four destination leaders share their vision of a better place for everyone

On some days, the map for the meetings and events industry recovery may look more like a Sorry game board winding back on itself with danger at every turn than a superhighway smoothly delivering delegates and ideas to their desired outcome, but meeting professionals are not alone on the journey back from pandemic times. Local experts at destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have stepped up over the last few years to help planners and their communities navigate new challenges posed by changing realities on the ground.

We asked four female destination leaders who have taken the helm at major convention and visitor bureaus over the last two years to share what recovery means for them and their communities and how they plan to bring everyone along for the ride.

Finally, we asked them to paint a picture of where they are going. Their responses were personal, aspirational and frank. The comments below are a map of where they have been and where they are going. Let’s follow along.

Casandra Matej

President and CEO, Visit Orlando (as of Feb. 1, 2022)

Former: President and CEO with Visit San Antonio, Senior Vice President of Sales and Services with Visit Dallas, Global Account Director with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Senior Sales Manager with Hyatt Hotels

Recovery Journey: All eyes are on Orlando as the top-visited destination in the country. Our aggressive plan is to welcome 80 million visitors by 2024. That is beyond where we were in 2019, but we are well on our way. Since July of 2020, Orange County Convention Center has hosted more than 200 events. It started with youth sports and grew in size and type.

A volleyball tournament that brought 10,000 in 2020 returned with 180,000 people this year. We have gone through the pandemic phases of no carpet, masks, testing and vaccination requirements. We immediately started doing virtual site inspections and FAMs and invested in developing 360 tours of our properties. Some of those things could continue to enhance in-person visits. But business is coming back and that is the good part of the story. Our job is to communicate even more abundantly so everyone can stay calm, play on and get business done.

All Included: I always had female leaders I looked up to, even when there weren’t that many of them. I decided I wanted to model how to fill the leadership role as a woman while being public about the fact that I had a family and I wasn’t choosing between them; I am prioritizing both.

Read MoreOrlando Leads the Way to Returning F2F

Creating more opportunities for diverse leadership is an intentional part of our strategic plan. Our vision statement is to be, “the most visited, welcoming and inclusive travel destination in the world.” Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is part of our DNA.

An international community lives here; it is a global destination. The three pillars of our DEI roadmap rely on people, promotion and partnership. We can build an equitable and diverse workforce and board of directors. That is something we can control. We can also showcase Orlando as a diverse destination in our storytelling. By being intentional about how we advertise, we can have an impact. Telling that diverse story benefits meeting professionals and attendees.

Common Misconception: We are well known as the theme park capital of the world, but there is an amazing story beyond that. This is where the fantastical collides with the authentic. We are a fun destination, but we are serious about business. We have 130,000 hotel rooms and an award-winning convention center. That is only growing as renovations are revealed constantly.

There is also a misperception about dining. We are home to 6,000 restaurants with 40 cuisines from around the world and are now a Michelin Guide destination with four-star venues. Even the hotel restaurants are creative.

Downtown and the unique neighborhoods are eclectic and within 20 minutes of International Drive.

Vision Statement: We are investing heavily in infrastructure in this 50-years young destination. Brightline Orlando will soon connect to Miami and could eventually reach Tampa. A third terminal will open at Orlando International Airport (MCO) this year. That could enable us to welcome up to 12 million more people a year. The only thing holding you back in Orlando is your imagination.

Tammy Blount-Canavan, FCDME

President and CEO, Visit Seattle (as of May, 2022)

Former: Executive Vice President and Principal of Fired-Up! Culture, President and CEO of Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, President and CEO, Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau

Recovery Journey: We are already seeing what recovery looks like in the streets of downtown. The return of tourism and conventions has revitalized the community. It is invigorating. It is what a city is supposed to look like.

Visitors are an incredibly important part of our economy, not just for the hotels and restaurants, but the tax dollars that go to resident services. We need to lean into that and be empathetic about some of the challenges surging back so quickly has had on hotel friends trying to ramp back up during the global staffing crisis.

All Included: As an immigrant from Vancouver and the first female CEO of Visit Seattle, I am keenly aware of the importance of valuing the diversity of the community and allowing people to express who they are.

We are focused on developing programs for underserved businesses and communities. The city already has the highest percentage of women-led businesses and SEAforShe is partnering with financial institutions and others to elevate those sectors even more. I am looking to diversify the Visit Seattle board and incorporate different voices in our planning beyond traditional stakeholders.

Common Misconception: Seattle is known as the emerald city for a reason. We do get regular rainfall that keeps everything green, but it is not monsoon-level and can actually be quite romantic.

Another misperception is that the images of people living on the streets in 2020 are the truth everywhere even today. We have proactive alternatives for the unsheltered in place and are actually a great example of how to deal with the global issue. This is a safe city and a great place to walk the streets. We need to tell that story.

Vision Statement: We are keenly focused on the opening of Summit Building in 2023. It will double our available space for meetings and add to the attraction of the city. Beyond that, the securing of the MLB All-Star game and FIFA World Cup in 2026 will help us tell our story.

In the meantime, we are trying to engage with the community more and help elected officials and stakeholders understand how we benefit residents. Responsible visitation is part of our mission.

We are dedicated to building back strategically, thoughtfully and intentionally. This is a huge opportunity to make sure new people are part of the evolutionary process and can live a life that is more flexible.

Julie Coker

President and CEO, San Diego Tourism Authority (as of June, 2020)

Former: President and CEO of Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, General Manager of Hyatt Hotels

Recovery Journey: The tourism industry is incredibly important to the San Diego region. It creates jobs and delivers real economic impact to our businesses and provided much-needed revenue to fund public safety, parks and recreation, and arts and culture.

While the pandemic hit our tourism and hospitality businesses incredibly hard, the good news is San Diego has been one of the top-performing destinations in the country in terms of hotel occupancy and room rates. In fact, fueled by leisure travel, San Diego is now close to, or, in some cases, above pre-pandemic levels.

Still, we know more must be done to fully recover, especially when it comes to meetings and conventions, so the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA) team in partnership with the San Diego Convention Center continues to focus on this important segment of our industry. Obviously, luring back international travelers is key as well.

Read MoreSite Inspection: San Diego’s Finest

All Included: While we continue to have innovative sales and marketing programs, central to all our efforts is the understanding of how important diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) are to the success of our industry and our destination. Our DE&I efforts are intentional and have a clear business case because we know this makes San Diego more appealing to visitors and reflects the diversity of our community.

My experience underpins so much of my leadership philosophy as I want everyone to feel welcome, included and heard. But it goes beyond doing good; it is also good for business. The research proves that the more diverse, inclusive and equitable businesses are, the better the outcomes, and I believe that is especially true for tourism and hospitality.

One of the initiatives I am most proud of in the last year is SDTA’s Tourism Accelerator, which is designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the local tourism industry by providing free membership, mentoring, education and networking opportunities to businesses owned by people of color, women, veterans and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

The aim of the Tourism Accelerator program is to extend industry support to create real pathways to leadership for the diverse businesses in our tourism industry that shape San Diego’s vibrant cultural identity. Our first cohort represents a wide range of business types with owners from a variety of backgrounds and we look forward to continuing and growing this program.

 There must be an understanding that everyone has a role to play so you need to create opportunities and pathways for growth and leadership by hiring and promoting people with varied backgrounds. Your senior leadership team and your board should also reflect the diversity of your community.

I always like to say: “What gets measured gets done.” That is especially true when it comes to DE&I. You need to have clear goals and accurate data so you can see where there are gaps. From there, an organization needs to develop a strategy and commit both the human and financial resources needed to achieve desired goals, whether it be in recruiting, supplier diversity, training, mentorship programs and so on.

Finally, you need to create an environment where people feel comfortable so they can share their unique insights and expertise. As I said, diversity of opinions and ideas makes our organization and industry stronger and more successful.

Common Misconception: Too often people think only of San Diego’s natural beauty with our 70 miles of coastline and our year-round, near-perfect weather. But we are definitely more than a pretty face. We are one of the top tech hubs in the world with a thriving life sciences sector that is on par with Boston and Silicon Valley. We are also leading the way in innovations in cybersecurity, drones and genomics because of the connection between the military and our tech companies as well as the links between those tech companies and our world-renowned scientific research community.

I also don’t think people realize how unique and vibrant our arts and culture scene is. From Balboa Park to the San Diego Symphony and its new outdoor performance venue the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park to the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s newly transformed La Jolla location, there is so much to do and see here.

Vision Statement: In the short term, SDTA continues to be laser-focused on helping our tourism economy recover, putting people back to work, bringing customer service levels back and generating the tax revenue to fund critical services like public safety.

When it comes to the long-term vision for San Diego, we need to continue to let people know about the breadth and depth of our offerings. We are not just a beautiful place to visit, but an inspiring one as well.

The future of travel will always be in person, whether it is leisure travel or meetings and conventions. Still, we need to lean into all the technological advances that can improve our visitors’ experiences, whether it be at the airport, a hotel, an attraction or during a keynote speech at the San Diego Convention Center. We also need to continue to ensure that our industry is one that values diversity, equity and inclusion so we can better serve our community and our visitors.

headshot of kathy nelsonKathy Nelson

Recovery Journey: Core to our mission is generating economic impact in Kansas City and advancing the quality of life of our destination through tourism. Visit KC activated a marketing recovery campaign, focusing on crisis management, safe travel promotion and consumer confidence. We worked with Kansas City leadership like our mayor, city council, health department and convention center to earn Global Biorisk Advisory Council accreditation.

For convention marketing we created a Safe Meetings content hub, a robust booking incentive program, and launched the KC Clean Commitment, a coalition of more than 100 local businesses pledging safe welcomes. Also, because of the dramatic economic impact the pandemic had on tourism and lodging activities, we turned our attention inward, working to support our industry colleagues and neighbors at a time when our community needed us most.

We focused on responsible, relevant and respectful messaging, and continued to keep Kansas City top of mind by driving engagement with content such as road-trip itineraries, family-friendly activities and targeted cultural and hospitality development.

As pandemic restrictions lifted, I listened to our staff to learn how we could assist them with being comfortable at work. I learned there were typically three responses, high anxiety that anything would ever return to normal, a passion to figure out how to work through the crisis and lastly, the mindset of everything is okay and let’s get back to work. I quickly learned it’s important to communicate slightly differently to each group.

All Included: Kansas City is open and welcoming to all as a diverse, hospitable destination. Equality, diversity and inclusion are principles and practices that we uphold for every visitor and resident. Visit KC is committed to prioritizing these values across our integrated marketing as they play an integral role in organization growth and destination success.

We have secured a contractual commitment with our agency, MMGY Global, to create integrated marketing strategies, campaigns and creative assets that represent the diversity of Kansas City’s culture and community while raising the profile of minority- and women-owned businesses. Within our own culture, we continue to build an empowered and inclusive team focused on diversity of thought, experience and background.

Our board of directors has formed the Diversity in Destination Management Committee which is very active with multiple community members. I’m proud that not only our organization but our entire community focuses on welcoming everyone to Kansas City.

Common Misconception: Dated Hollywood depictions and preconceived notions about the Midwest might say that Kansas City is “flyover country.” But our region’s culture and people are challenging that stereotype and helping to change minds with each individual visit. Fueled by a $10 billion renaissance, our cosmopolitan city of 2 million also touts major league sports, world-class arts and culture and a dynamic dining scene that goes far beyond barbecue.

But you don’t have to just take our word for it; major media outlets such as AFAR, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have all taken notice of what’s happening here. I believe we are quickly moving beyond misconceptions to becoming known as the heart of America and even the world. Kansas City is a vibrant, modern, cultural center located right in the middle of it all. We proudly wear our KC hearts on our clothes whether we are at home or traveling. The KC heart isn’t a misconception, it’s a thing!

Vision Statement: Visit KC’s vision is to be the heart of the tourism industry in Kansas City. Our mission is to create global passion for Kansas City. Authorized by Kansas City, Missouri, as the official marketing and sales agency for the City, Visit KC is responsible for marketing and selling the City’s Convention & Entertainment Facilities for conventions, trade shows, corporate meetings, sporting events and events generating room nights. We generate economic impact as a significant driver of economic development for the region through job creation and tourism revenues.

This article appears in the August 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.