Rise of Female CEOS Advance DMOs In The Drive For Diversity

November 18, 2021

Diversity is not just on everyone’s lips anymore. It’s manifesting itself into action. A focus on the role of women in the tourism industry, however, reveals that there are more females in leadership than ever before. As DMOs make more concerted efforts to diversify their teams, we spoke to some female CEOs to take the temperature of things on the ground.

Kellie Henderson, Senior Vice President at SearchWide Global, is excited about seeing more women moving into leadership roles. Her recruitment agency strives to connect DMOs with the most qualified and diverse talent they can find.

“More than half of our placements in the past several years have been non-white male and female,” Henderson said. As more and more women take roles as CEOs in DMOs and CVBs across the United States, one thing is clear: there’s still some work to do.

The outlook, however, is a positive one.

Reaching for Top Shelf Roles

Maura Gast, the executive director of Irving CVB in Texas believes that women are stepping up into leadership roles at an increasing rate. The prominence of those roles, however, is what may still be lacking.

“I think there’s more of us out there than people realize, it’s just not at high profile destinations,” she said. While some larger destinations like San Diego and Orlando have hired female CEOs recently, there’s still a lack of diversity at the top tier destinations nationwide.

Kristen Reynolds, CEO at Visit Long Island, agrees. “I think there’s still that extra step where women still have to prove themselves as leaders where it’s not always the case otherwise.”

For years women did not see themselves stepping into CEO roles – whether it was in the tourism industry or otherwise – but all of that is changing. As women build on the progress of those who came before them, the path is a little less rocky than it may have once been to reach the top.

Packing the Right Stuff

Getting to the top, however, means pushing the industry to shift away from traditions and norms that may be standing in the way. That’s part of what helped Maureen Haley Thornton progress towards her new President and CEO role at Visit Franklin. Her trajectory wasn’t a traditional one, coming from marketing and communication background. She said her unconventional profile, however, helped be a more creative thinker and a better leader.

“On the agency side you are forced to get outside of PR and think how it impacts sales and all the other factors of the business. As a CEO you need to think about how all these things fit together,” she said.

CEOs at DMOs and CVBs often boast sales backgrounds, due in no small part to the importance of the sales generated with convention centers. Reynolds, however, said all that is changing. “It doesn’t matter how much you’re selling if you’re not able to articulate the value of those sales to your stakeholders and residents.”

For her, a communication background is more important now more than ever as destinations work on issues like advocacy and community empowerment. “The focus should be how you are building collaborations and bridging relationships and motivating your team,” she said.

What About Diversity?

Reynolds also acknowledged that diversity is a complex issue, but that assuming a leadership role is never without its challenges. “Nothing comes easy no matter what gender you are,” she said. Still, she said, the industry needs to remember that women as a group are still contributors to diversity, among many others.

They all agreed, however, that progress for women has come a long way, and few barriers still present themselves to women on the path to leadership, at least in the tourism industry. Gast said she hopes we won’t need women’s groups in the future to enact change. “I never wanted to be seen as a good female insert role here, I want to be a good insert role here, male or female,” she said.

Thornton echoed Gast, saying that while gender is important, it can’t define everything she does. “It’s funny to be talking about being a female CEO because I’m just a CEO and it’s a luxury to be able to say that,” she said, acknowledging the women who have fought in decades prior to allow her this opportunity.

Work to Do

While women – and yes, some men – have helped pave the way for these women to become rising stars in the tourism industry, they all acknowledge there’s more to do.

For Gast, the question of diversity transcends traditional gender roles. Or at least she thinks it should. “The better we get at acknowledging and empowering diversity the more we realize that diversity is a really big topic. We’re not yet having a conversation about why there aren’t more LGBTQ+ in CVB leadership roles, for example.”

Thornton and Reynolds both think that education and rethinking of the current norms could open up more opportunities to a larger group of future CEOs. “People have thought about careers as a linear path, but what do you do if you want to jump from VP of communication to a CEO role? How do you get exposure to other areas?” Thornton posited. She urges younger professionals to get out of their comfort zone and to explore what makes a good leader.

On the industry side, Reynolds hopes that the current system of KPIs can adapt to new realities. “People are so scared to have a new KPI, a new component of measurement that shows that sometimes it’s just building relationships and showing you’re connecting to your residents, and there’s not a dollar value attached to that,” she said.

Like Thornton, Reynolds supports risk taking and experimentation that helped her land a CEO role, something she never imagined. “Take a risk and believe in yourself and be willing to put in the work when the opportunity is at your doorstep,” she said. She noted that the advice applies to quite literally anyone who hopes to rise up to a leadership position one day, no matter what gender they may or may not identify with in the future.

Karyl Leigh Barnes is the President of Development Counsellors International (DCI). DCI focuses exclusively on economic development and travel marketing for places around the world. Since 1960, the firm has helped 500 cities, regions, states, provinces and countries attract business investment, talent and visitors. We are focused on our calling to leverage tourism as a force for good, creating living-wage jobs and improving the quality of life for local residents.