Venus Rising

In 1989, Marian Holt McLain had been working in the number-two spot at the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau for 14 years. She'd progressed rapidly at the bureau, having started as a receptionist in 1970 and climbed to her current post in just five years. Still, she wasn't satisfied with playing second fiddle. "I wanted to be number one," she says. "I thought I had the skills, and I love the industry."

Yet she couldn't seem to land the job, despite her obvious talent and longtime dedication to the destination, her hometown. The top position opened up a few times during her tenure, but she didn't get it. Finally, a bureau board member, who was also a friend, took her aside and told her privately that Seattle just wasn't "ready" for a female bureau chief. "That's when I decided to leave Seattle, to look for a city that would appreciate a woman CEO."

My, what a difference 14 years make. Though McLain eventually landed her dream job as bureau CEO, she had to move to California -- San Jose -- to get it. Nowadays, it'd be much harder to imagine an ambitious female staffer at nearly any CVB being told her destination wasn't "ready" for a woman leader. In fact, the International Association

of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB) recently polled over 500 of its member bureaus, predominantly located in the U.S. and Canada, and found that nearly half -- 48.5 percent -- had women in the top job. Women currently head up the bureaus in Jacksonville, FL; Salt Lake City, UT; Madison, WI; Cincinnati, St. Louis, and, most prominently, New York City -- not to mention the scores of women across the country who have long been numero uno at smaller destinations like Boise, ID; Bloomington, MN; and Pasadena, CA.

Ascending the Throne

What accounts for women's rapid rise in the CVB world? As cities and towns recognize the value of luring group business, especially conventions and meetings, a growing number have professionalized their tourism offerings, forming bureaus where none existed previously or not as stand-alone entities. In these smaller, more flexible settings, it's often easier for a woman to be recognized for her leadership qualities. This phenomenon, observers say, is good news for travel and hospitality as a whole. After all, it's no secret that there's still a glass ceiling in this industry (see SM's cover story, May 2002), and watching it crack a bit at the nation's CVBs makes many female planners more optimistic about their own ability to ascend. "This shows other women that it's not that farfetched for a female to be in a leadership position," asserts Michele Wierzgac, CMM, head of Michele and Company, a meeting management and consulting firm in Oak Park, IL. "These women are role models."

And they're doubly inspiring because, on their way to the top, many, if not most, have put in long stints working directly with conventions and meetings, which has the added benefit of making them sympathetic to planners' interests. A typical example is Carole Moody, who spent 26 years at the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission selling her hometown to conventions and other groups, and who specifically cited the importance of attracting meetings and conventions when she became the bureau's first female president and CEO last June.

Another is Lisa Haller, who in May became the first woman to head up the Greater Cincinnati CVB, replacing a man who'd been in the job for 30 years. In just three months, she reorganized the bureau to better reflect the importance of meetings, in the process elevating several talented female bureau stalwarts to executive positions. Karen Keller, a 26-year staffer and one of the women whose leadership potential Haller recognized, was promoted from director of convention marketing to vice president of destination services, special events, and membership. In a female-dominated profession such as meeting planning, says Keller, a mentor like Haller "is very welcome."

Paint the Town Pink

One observer who's not at all surprised so many women are leading bureaus is veteran planner Wierzgac: "This business is all about relationships, and women are natural relationship marketers." Indeed, certain so-called "female" qualities may in part account for these women's success: Several bureau executives and meeting planners interviewed for this article cited skills they believe women excel in as critical to succeeding in travel and hospitality.

For example, "Women tend to be builders of consensus," observes McLain, whose three-decade career at CVBs includes her 11-year stint running San Jose's bureau, from which she retired two years ago. "Once upon a time, CVB leaders just needed a handshake and a letter of intent. Now you need contracts with politicians and other groups, so a lot of negotiating and consensus-building needs to take place." Similarly, Deb Archer, president of the Greater Madison (WI) CVB and former CEO of the bureau of Park City, UT, believes attention to detail, multitasking, and frequent, effective communication are typically female as well as "essential elements of what we do." They're also essential elements of what planners do -- as are organizational skills, notes Wierzgac: "Let's face it: We're organizational gurus. We love to organize. So it makes sense the meeting profession is loaded with women."

But in a profession "loaded" with females yet still largely led by males, what can planners learn from these women's stories? How can planners with an appetite for leadership rise to the top of their profession? They can learn from the example of young, female CVB heads who've succeeded by not being afraid to ask advice and seek out mentors, believes Patti Roscoe, chairman of San Diego-based PRA Destination Management. "That's something women do very well, and it's important. It not only helps them directly but it's very savvy politically, because it gets doors opened."

Ever Since Eve

Fourteen years ago, Cami Mattson, a 27-year-old rising marketing star at the visitors bureau of Escondido, CA, was tapped for what she thought at the time to be a temporary post as president of the tiny local organization. The job was fraught with political challenges, not least of which was the threat of losing its funding, and Mattson immediately set about expanding the bureau's membership and seeking new sources of income by moving from a single-city to a regional base. The result, after several years of determined effort, was the San Diego North County Convention and Visitors Bureau, encompassing Escondido as well as 19 other communities. Mattson, today just 41, is its president and CEO.

Not surprisingly, Mattson says it was initially difficult to prove herself as a young woman in such an important job, and she often faced rumors -- unfounded -- that she was using her, shall we say, feminine charms to get ahead politically. On the plus side, her youth gave her energy and passion, which persuaded others to join in on her project; eventually the results bore her out. "She was really able to take a vision and make it happen," says Roscoe, who for a time served as chair of the San Diego North CVB and has watched Mattson grow over the years. She did so, Roscoe believes, in part by doing the quintessentially female thing of seeking out advice from power brokers.

Mattson herself believes she thrived because she was, well, herself: "What I learned by being thrust into that leadership role at such a young age was to use my own talents and authenticity, my own strategic thinking and persuasive skills, my own nature, rather than trying to fit into a 'man's world' or what I perceived an executive role to be."

Those could be watchwords for any young woman, whether in planning or another area of hospitality, hoping to climb the corporate ladder. They certainly were for Cristyne Nicholas, president and CEO of one of the most important CVBs in the country, NYC and Company, and also -- not coincidentally -- the only female bureau chief who came from the political side rather than rising through the ranks (she'd previously served as press secretary to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). When she was first named to the post in 1999, Nicholas, much like Mattson, faced criticism that she was unprepared and rumors about having compromised herself to get the job. Still, she thrived, and today is widely respected by other bureau heads and hospitality professionals, in particular for her tireless efforts to lure groups back to New York City after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Jaclyn Bernstein, president and partner of Empire Force Events, a Manhattan-based event production and destination management company, has watched a revolving door of CEOs at New York City's CVB over the years; Nicholas, she says, is "the most visible president I've seen. She's not at all a figurehead, as you might expect of the bureau chief of such a large city." And even though Nicholas didn't come from the hospitality side, Bernstein adds, her background in communications makes her "very approachable." For example, Empire Force Events frequently hosts familiarization trips for meeting and incentive planners, and, Bernstein notes, "Cristyne has been very involved. Whether it's hosting an event, or meeting the planners at the offices of NYC and Company, she's there."

Is that because, as some might suggest, of typically "feminine" traits like empathy, consensus-building, and a flair for the personal touch? Nicholas herself bristles at the notion. Being female "isn't something I've focused on," she says. "Looking back on my career, I've been one of the few women at the table in almost every position. Basically, I have a job to do and I don't look at gender."

Then again, as one of literally hundreds of female bureau heads across the country -- even if she is the most powerful -- she's had the luxury of not having had to think about it. By contrast, more senior women executives remember a different time. "Thirty years ago, women were seen as not being able to hold leadership positions," recalls Bonnie Carlson, who has been president and CEO of the bureau of Bloomington, MN, for 17 years. Similarly, when PRA Destination Management's Roscoe began her hospitality career 28 years ago, "nearly every client and every industry leader was a man," she notes. "There weren't a lot of female role models back then. Now there are."