By R.V. Baugus
became introduced to the world of convention center management by walking
the walk. Literally.
Working in a newly created office of special events
with the City of Dallas, Wallace parked at the Dallas Convention Center and
walked to City Hall.
“I noticed they were always changing the décor,” she
says about the convention center. “I didn’t realize it was conventions
moving in and out. One day I saw a job open up advertised at the convention
center called a convention services rep. I went over to interview with Frank
Poe and Jerry Barshop. Two positions were open, one at the convention center
and one at the new Reunion Arena. I got the job at the convention center and
went to work on my birthday in 1980.”
Carol Wallace’s career in the industry was cemented
because she talked the talk. Literally.
“When I moved to San Diego (to serve as president and
chief executive officer of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation) I
was always at different meetings to visit stakeholders and get their view of
what we’re doing,” she says. “This one guy was running for city council and
always at the same meetings and he saw me once and said, ‘You know, I don’t
know you, but I see you at every meeting I’m at. I see you shaking hands and
introducing yourself. What office are you running for?’ I said, ‘I’m not
running for anything, I’m just new in town.’”
And when you get Carol Wallace walking the walk and
talking the talk at the same time, you get an individual who seems to bounce
from meeting to meeting and who talks at a very fast clip that demands the
listener do his job well to catch all the nuggets shared from a woman whose
basket is full of nuggets honed through the 30-plus years she has worked in
public venue management.
NO CHALLENGE TOO GREAT
Let’s back up and say that those nuggets in the basket were actually
buckeyes, for it was at The Ohio State University that Wallace attended
beginning in 1968 and would receive her undergraduate degree in 1973 in
English with a minor in Journalism.
The first thing Wallace notes when talking about being
an Ohio State Buckeye was, “The year I graduated we sent 10 or 11 players to
pro football. It was the Archie Griffin era, the Woody Hayes era.”
While Griffin became (and still is) the only player to
win back-to-back Heisman Trophy Awards and while Hayes has legendary status
in the college coaching pecking order, it was also a time of racial unrest
in the country and on college campuses across the United States. While in
Columbus, Wallace was not far away from the shootings that took place at
Kent State University in 1970.
In fact, the office of minority affairs was created on
campus in 1970 to start recruiting and retaining minority students on
campus. Wallace, a Cincinnati native, began working part-time in the office
while still a student.
“The office was actually born out of the riots of the
1970s,” says Wallace. “When I went to OSU, there were only 100 minority
students on campus. There was work definitely to be done.”
It was obvious early on that Wallace had a strong work
ethic and would transition easily into any type of service industry. Upon
her graduation, Wallace landed a position with the Ohio Lung Association,
where she was the head of public relations and fundraising at the state
level. It was also at the association that Wallace came upon a teaching
lesson that has served her well in her career.
“I replaced a person who had been at the association
for 30 years, and he threw away all the files,” says Wallace. “When I joined
this organization with 16 branch offices, I had no files. I had no choice
but to go out and talk to the field and find out what they wanted out of the
state office. That turned out to be a great move because going out and
talking to the PR people at the offices told me we were not delivering to
them what they wanted.”
Wallace delivered exceptional press coverage for her
employer thanks to some creative statewide campaigns including a Cold Turkey
Day, a campaign put together to encourage smokers to go “cold turkey” and
not smoke the Friday after Thanksgiving. One public service announcement for
the campaign had the fiery Woody Hayes (whose career pretty much ended after
he struck an opposing Clemson University player on the sideline at a bowl
game) bellow, “Go cold turkey … or I’ll hit you!”
Wallace visited Texas to talk about her successful
campaigns to that state’s association. What ensued would be a loss to her
native state but a gain for the Lone Star State. “After being in Dallas, I
decided that I wanted to move there,” says Wallace.
She could not have chosen better bosses and mentors
than Poe and Barshop to serve under. Wallace credits both industry icons
with giving her an opportunity to be involved, to learn and to grow as a
“Jerry would invite me along to attend meetings with
architects when we were going into an expansion and Frank invited me to
attend meetings with major clients. They gave me the opportunity to learn
the industry long before we had any kind of (professional) school. You
learned by following good people and they are some of the best in the
Once of Wallace’s convention accounts had an office in
Colorado Springs and mentioned to Wallace that a convention center was being
built in Denver and that she should consider making another move. “She said,
‘Here’s this guy, call him and give him your resume.’”
So it was that in 1988 Wallace was sending her resume
to yet another industry beacon in Tom Mobley. While the convention center
would still be a couple of years away before completion, Mobley was duly
impressed with the industry up-and-comer.
Wallace soon thereafter attended a District 6 meeting in Colorado Springs.
Mobley arranged to drive from Denver to pick up Wallace and show her the new
“Tom had some other guys with him,” remembers Wallace.
“We visited the site, went to have lunch and had a great time. On the way
back he asked what I thought about the project. We drove some more and he
asked again what I thought about the project. Again, I said good things
about the project. The third time I said, ‘I’ve said everything I can say
about your project.’ I said, ‘What are you asking me?’ He said, ‘Well, one
of the guys I picked up was my boss and he and I both think we should hire
you right now.’”
While the notion of attending a conference only to come
back home with a job offer in hand is not so far-fetched, the scenario of
being offered while riding in a car is probably a rare occurrence.
But when Denver opened in 1990, it had the distinction
of having the first African-American woman to run a major convention center.
CALIFORNIA COMES CALLING
One year later Wallace made her final move to San Diego, where in 1991 she
guided a process to expand the San Diego Convention Center, a move that came
to fruition in 2001. In her two decades leading the 2.6 million square foot
Wallace is perhaps best known for her innovative leadership. Wallace says
that San Diego went against the grain of conventional (pardon the pun)
thinking when building the venue by hiring a consultant to look at some
operating models around the country. That thinking revealed that cities
operated convention centers while convention and visitor bureaus sold and
marketed the incoming business.
The consultant studied this model and determined that
the convention center should run the full gamut of business from operations
to sales and marketing. Wallace adds that this took place in 1984 before she
came onboard and that a corporation was created for a building that opened
Chagrined to lose the sales and marketing aspect that
many of their peers controlled in other parts of the country, the CVB went
back to the City in an attempt to regain that parcel of business. In a
decision to appease all parties, the City decided that the convention center
could sell and market 24 months and in for events while the bureau handled
business two years and beyond.
That was the scenario when Wallace arrived in 1991, but
the CVB made another run at the City in 1995 to try and fully retain sales
“The City said, ‘You’re right, it should all be under
one entity … the convention center,’” says Wallace.
After another final ditch effort in 2004, the City
announced that the convention center would have total control of sales and
marketing and that the bureau should focus on the destination.
Wallace says that other cities are interested in her
model “now that we manage and market our convention center and still provide
tremendous room nights to the destination.”
In addition, the San Diego Convention Center
Corporation manages in such a way so as to reduce its own debt so the city
doesn’t have to fund it as much.
“We are self-supported 94 percent,” says Wallace. “I
meet with the hotels and we talk about going after business together as a
benefit to them and a benefit to us. We go for business that is good for the
convention center, our hotels, our attractions and our restaurants.
“We lost a million-and-a-half last year compared to
some cities that are up in the roof (in losses). That’s why other cities are
looking at this and why other bureaus are nervous about what we do. I’m not
saying this should be changed across the board. If you look at the cities
that have made the change, it’s the ones that are a high visitor
destination. San Diego is a high visitor destination, so you want your
bureau focused on getting more visitors here. You don’t need them (bureaus)
focused on the convention center because we can do that.”
NEW ROLE FOR CONVENTION CENTERS
Convention centers everywhere face the challenge of filling open dates and
producing revenue. Wallace is aware of the challenge and happily meets it
“I think we should be looking in addition to that
tourism box at how we use our convention centers as an economic development
tool,” she says. “Look at solar and clean energy. There is a lot of
leadership in the clean energy field where we operate. Should we not as a
convention center be looking to some of those industries and to try and
partner and create some kind of show here regarding clean energy?”
You already know the answer to the question and so a
major bio-tech show is coming to the venue. As for the partnership, Wallace
explains she has the ready-to-go assets in the building and staff while the
partner is about producing shows.
“Your asset is any time you are sitting there without a
show to run you have a lost opportunity,” she explains. “You take your lost
opportunity and my lost opportunity (dark dates), create an opportunity and
we split the bottom line.”
Wallace and her city are also involved in a
cross-marketing opportunity with her colleagues across the country in
Boston. Since both markets cater to similar large associations who hold
trade shows and conferences from one coast to the other, the cities use the
opportunity to promote each other’s clientele without comprising any
Wallace is not about being the first to do this or do
that, but one way or the other being the first seems to find her.
In 1999-2000 Wallace became the first African-American
woman to be named chairman of IAVM. She serves in a huge number of civic and
humanitarian endeavors both ranging from local (San Diego Hotel-Motel
Association) to international (on the Board of the United States
International University in Nairobi, Kenya) and chances are good at some
point she will again be the first for some position or title.
“I hope I’m not (the last African-American IAVM
Chair),” she says. “It’s been great seeing women in the industry come after
me like Robyn (Williams) and Shura (Lindgren-Garnett) to lead the
association because we all kind of came together.”
In overseeing about 280 full-time and 500 part-time
staff, Wallace believes that leaders hire good people, provide good
direction and then get the heck out of the way. She strongly believes the
most important in her organization are those on the front lines, the ones
who have the most daily interaction with the building’s guests.
“I had a person who applied to be a housekeeper here
who was not hired stopped me on the street,” says Wallace. “He said, ‘They
interviewed me three times and still didn’t hire me.’ I said, ‘You know,
your job is more important than my job because you see more of our attendees
than I do. That’s why they interviewed you three times.’”
Wallace thinks back almost four decades and those files
that were thrown away by her predecessor.
“If the files aren’t thrown away, pretend they are and
go out and meet people and don’t always try to replicate what the other
person has done before you,” she says.
“Create your own path.”
Told you she is one to walk the walk.
R.V. Baugus is editor of Facility Manager magazine.