. The Not-So-Lonely View From the Top | Meetings & Conventions

The Not-So-Lonely View From the Top

A closer look at women leaders in the destination marketing world

In recent years women have celebrated a number of significant achievements, particularly in the area of leadership. Slowly but steadily, glass ceilings are shattering, social barriers are breaking down, the gender pay gap is narrowing and roles are shifting as women become leaders in sectors traditionally run by men. The destination marketing world is no exception, with more women filling top-level positions than ever before. And DMOs in the United States and beyond are planning for the future by actively nurturing the next generation of female leaders.

At Destination Marketing Association International—which is rebranding as Destinations International—the incoming chair is Tammy Blount, the fifth woman to hold the role in the organization’s more than 100-year history. And she has plenty of company in the volunteer leadership ranks of DMAI: Stephanie Pace Brown, executive director of the Asheville (North Carolina) Convention & Visitors Bureau, will chair the board of the Destination & Travel Foundation; the Certified Destination Management Executive (CDME) board will be chaired by Maura Gast, executive director of the Irving (Texas) Convention & Visitors Bureau; and the Destination Marketing Accreditation Program (DMAP) board will be chaired by Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County (Florida).

With the situation looking up for women in destination marketing, it’s worth taking a look at how the field arrived at this moment.


High Five

Blount, president and CEO of the Monterey County (California) CVB, will assume her new role this month at the 2017 DMAI Annual Convention in Montreal. “It’s really an amazing honor,” she said. “The four women who have preceded me in that role have been incredibly brave trail blazers.”

Blount began her career working at several hotels in Vancouver, Canada, and was then recruited by Tourism Vancouver to help build its reservation service. Not knowing exactly what the position would entail, Blount decided to give it a try. “At the time I was pretty young and naïve,” she said. “I think a lot of people didn’t really understand what a convention and visitors bureau or destination marketing organization did.” But during the 11 years she spent at Tourism Vancouver, where she held about 10 different roles, Blount said she “really got to understand how we contribute to the benefit of a community and its quality of life.”

It was during her time at Tourism Vancouver that Blount became involved with DMAI, then called the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus (IACVB). After leaving Tourism Vancouver, Blount worked with the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum and then became president and CEO of the Tacoma (Washington) Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, before assuming her current role as president and CEO of the Monterey County CVB.

“I think it’s an exciting time to be a woman in leadership in our industry, being that it is a female-dominated industry but not always in the CEO position,” Blount said. “Nine years ago, there were not as many women CEOs as there are now. Our field at the top has traditionally been men, and we’re seeing a little bit of a transition in that area.”


Unspoken Scrutiny

That transition was evident in Philadelphia when Julie Coker Graham took the helm of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau in January 2016, becoming the only African-American female president and CEO at a convention and visitors bureau in a top-50 U.S. market. “I’m fortunate to work in a city that is very diverse,” Coker Graham said. “Philadelphia as a market is very supportive of minorities and very supportive of women. And that has made the transition of me being the first certainly much easier.”

But Coker Graham said being a pioneer involved added pressure and unspoken scrutiny. “Folks are watching what you do and how you do it,” she said. “Being first, you’re laying the groundwork. You just hope that you’re laying a foundation that others can work from.”

Prior to working at the Philadelphia CVB—where she was originally senior vice-president of convention sales—Coker Graham spent 21 years with Hyatt Hotels. Being in the hotel industry provided her with perspective on why women were not populating the top seats at DMOs. One of the culprits may have been the shortage of women working as hotel general managers, a group of professionals often called upon to serve as CVB board members. If a city does not have a lot of female general managers, the board will reflect that scarcity, she said.

But why aren’t there more female general managers? “One reason it’s hard for women to move into the GM role is the perception of time,” Coker Graham said. “You’re in an industry that’s open 24 hours, so some women wonder how they’re going to be a mother, be a wife and be at work until 8 p.m. That sometimes can be a deterrent for women.”

And while she believes that the DMO world has been supportive, she also thinks much more can be done to bring women into the fold. Coker Graham is an advocate of mentoring programs. To her, it’s important to identify someone with potential and invest in them. That means carving out time to work with them and exposing them to opportunities that allow them to grow. “I think we can do a better job of preparing that No. 2 and getting her set up for success,” Coker Graham said.


On Board

Karen Bolinger, CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau in Australia, agrees that the DMO world has been supportive to some extent, but “not as much as it could be,” she said. Like Coker Graham, she emphasized the need for women to be at the table and to be better prepared for higher-level positions. “Our industry has a large proportion of women in it, but not at the board table,” Bolinger said. “This needs to change and must be driven by boards and incumbent CEOs to provide opportunities, succession planning and develop talent further.”

Bolinger started at the Melbourne Convention Bureau in 2011. During her tenure, she has helped deliver $1.6 billion in economic impact to the region. She also established a new method of selling Melbourne by positioning the city as an intellectual hub in the conference market. This method paved the way for a strategy that brought the academic and research sectors together with the tourism sector to bid for events in Victoria. According to a recent report from the International Congress and Convention Association, Melbourne is ranked as No. 1 in Australia and No. 22 in the world for delegate attendance.

Bolinger recognizes that DMOs are moving outside of the traditional tourism sector, turning their attention to the visitor economy and being more connected to the economic development divisions of government. “We’re no longer seen as the ‘fun’ economy,” Bolinger said. “We’re a serious industry creating jobs, generating taxes and building a destination’s brand equity for future investment.”


Vital Role to Play

Economic vitality is a priority for Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick (Rhode Island) Convention & Visitors Bureau and the fourth woman to chair DMAI. She feels that the economic vitality of her community is dependent on preserving its most valuable assets and making sure that they remain viable in the future—a feat not without its challenges.

“We’ve had a lot of ‘asteroids’ thrown at us,” Sheridan said, quoting the Irving CVB’s Maura Gast, a well-known figure in the industry and the third woman to chair DMAI. “But ultimately, we understand that we are not going away and we have a very vital role to play in our communities.”

One of those asteroids was the skepticism Sheridan faced earlier in her career. It was 1997, and Sheridan had noticed more women in the workplace taking on the dual role of being a mother and working a full-time job. Sheridan was then vice-president of the Providence Warwick CVB, and the organization’s CEO had just been let go. A board member asked Sheridan to step in and serve as interim president. During a meeting in front of the entire board of nearly 20 people, a former mayor asked Sheridan, “Don’t you have too many family encumbrances that would prevent you from taking the role?”

Sheridan had two young children at the time and was pregnant with her third child. She responded with a simple “no,” understanding that the inappropriate question did not warrant further explanation. Interestingly enough, she said, “the man who proposed that I become interim chair was a single father of young girls, and I’ll bet no one ever asked him that question.”

But Sheridan believes the increasing number of female CEOs today stems from the fact that her generation was working and raising children at the same time. Her children—two daughters aged 21 and 23, as well as an 18-year-old son—grew up with a frame of reference that was different from Sheridan’s, whose mother did not work. “[My children] didn’t know any other way growing up,” Sheridan said. “My girls saw that I traveled, worked long hours. My son grew up in a household where his mother was a leader, a CEO, and that’s commonplace. This is the first generation that has seen that at such a level, and I think their frame of reference is completely different than ours was 20 years ago.”


Blazing the Trail

Bobbie Patterson, the first woman to chair DMAI, understands how different things used to be. Her career began at the Boise Chamber of Commerce in 1976, six years before the city’s CVB became a separate entity. Patterson helped launch the Boise CVB and served as its executive director for more than three decades before retiring at the end of 2012.

“I never accepted that Boise wasn’t as big a player as anybody else,” Patterson said. “Boise is never going to be San Francisco or Chicago, and it doesn’t need to be, it shouldn’t be. But it is a product.”

Patterson asserted that the only way the industry could grow in cities like Boise was if local leaders were personally invested. “I needed to invest in myself because I really represented Boise,” she said. She also pointed to another personal quality that she feels contributed to her success. “My personality—sometimes unfortunately—is never keeping my mouth shut,” she said.

Patterson also refused to accept that she was smaller than anyone else—literally. At 4 feet 11 inches tall, she found that people would say they wanted to adopt her, tap her on the head or call her “cute,” which she didn’t exactly consider a compliment. “All my life I’ve lived with that, but I never thought of myself in that context,” she said. “Except at a big cocktail party where everyone is standing up and they’re really tall,” she said.

When Patterson became DMAI’s first female chair in 1994, she said she was as surprised as everyone else. She felt honored to be the first woman but she also wanted people to focus on her ability to do the job. She just thought, “Someone’s got to do this job, and I can. It didn’t matter that I was doing it as a female, it just mattered that I got it done.”

For the most part, Patterson said she did not meet with much resistance, but she did recall a conversation with Bill Snyder, former president of the Anaheim/Orange County (California) Hotel & Lodging Association and former chair of DMAI, when she first launched the Boise bureau. At the time, organizations that wished to become members of DMAI (then IACVB) needed to be approved by the board. “Bill said to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m even considering approving a woman from Boise, Idaho, to be in IACVB. I don’t have any reason to turn you down, but I also don’t have a lot of reason to approve you.’ Bill and I have laughed about that a thousand times. He became a great friend.”


Shifting Conversation

Exchanges like that are far more rare than they used to be. The conversation has shifted to what can be done to welcome more women into what used to be a world that was primarily accessible only to men. The consensus is that women have come a long way, but there is still much more work to be done. The good news is that there is no better moment to take action than now. “It’s just our time,” Blount said. “The world is ready for us, and we’re ready for the world.” •