Meet the Women Leading Three Top US Destinations

13 min

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There has never been a more fascinating time to be employed in the travel and tourism industry. Around the world, the industry is evolving in dynamic new ways, while also navigating some of the most pressing issues facing the planet.

At the same time, women are stepping into travel industry roles in greater numbers than ever before and spearheading many of the boldest and most important efforts.

Women now account for 46.8 percent of those employed in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But when looking specifically at the travel industry, women represent 54 percent of those employed worldwide, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

This important progress includes an increasing number of women leading major destinations across the United States. From California to the deep south and in numerous locations in between, some of the country’s largest and most well-known travel hotspots are now led by women.

In honor of Women’s History Month, TravelPulse spoke with three such women, asking each of them about their journey to become major destination leaders, as well as discussing how far women have come, and how much more needs to be done. Because even while more than half of the travel sector is now made up of women, senior or strategic roles continue to lack equal representation.

Here are the reflections and insights of three women who have risen to the highest levels of the travel industry, blazing a trail for those who will surely follow.

Julie Coker, San Diego Tourism Authority. (photo via San Diego Tourism Authority)

Julie Coker, President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA)

When Julie Coker arrived in San Diego, the eighth-largest city in the United States, she was hardly new to destination leadership. For nearly 10 years she’d worked with the Philadelphia Convention & Visitor’s Bureau in various leadership positions, including her final role as president and CEO.

But just as Coker was transitioning into her new role in America’s Finest City, the travel industry was upended by a deadly global pandemic. Taking over in June 2020, Coker hit the ground running. And during the few short years she’s been in San Diego, navigating pandemic survival and recovery, Coker has racked up an impressive record.

In 2022, San Diego was ranked one of the top-performing U.S. destinations and fourth in the nation for hotel occupancy levels, which were 72.6 percent. In addition, under Coker’s leadership, tourism jobs in the city returned to pre-pandemic levels of more than 200,000 individuals employed. And the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax generated more than $360 million for regional services.

Q.Was being head of a major destination marketing organization a long-held career goal, something that you had long focused on working to achieve?

Not at all. I began my career with Hyatt Hotels and worked my way up to general manager. I very much thought I would move around as a general manager to various-sized hotel properties, or possibly move into a corporate office role with Hyatt and from there retire. I was fortunate to sit on DMO boards as a general manager in both Chicago and Philadelphia, so I was familiar with their work and the role a DMO played. However, prior to joining the [Philadelphia Convention & Visitor’s Bureau] I did not envision myself working for a DMO. Funny how things work out.

Q. Is leading a destination marketing organization a role that has historically been held by men? And how does it feel to reach this senior level of leadership as a woman?

The travel and tourism industry is like most industries – top positions were held by men. Over the past 10-plus years, you see more and more women leading destination marketing organizations, especially in key destinations like Orlando, Seattle, and Nashville. This is fantastic to see however, we still have a ways to go.

In both Philadelphia and San Diego, I was the first female president and CEO and as the first, you understand and appreciate the significance of being the first. It is an honor to be the first, but you also do not want to be the last.

It is important to ensure you leave the role better than you found it, pay it forward and open doors for other women following in your footsteps. When you sit in this type of role, you can address some of the inequities women may face and educate those around you on behalf of women. I take that role very seriously because I know that my opportunity came about because of other women in leadership.

Q. What does a day in the life of a major U.S. destination leader typically involve? And what elements of your job do you enjoy most?

No two days are alike! My day can include anything from being in the office with my team to attending a Chamber of Commerce meeting to discussing infrastructure projects that will make it easier for visitors to move around our destination to new hotels or attractions being considered or traveling to sell and promote San Diego.

You’re constantly, engaged with internal stakeholders. I spend a great deal of time working with internal stakeholders, making sure they have the tools and resources they need to do their job. Internal stakeholders for me include everyone from my team to SDTA members, residents, business leaders, and local elected officials. External stakeholders are the visitors that come to the destination.

Lastly, I sit on national and state boards to make sure San Diego’s voice is heard and to advocate on behalf of San Diego. What I enjoy the most about my job is knowing that the work I and our team does makes a difference in the lives of San Diegans.

Skyline of San Diego, california
Skyline of San Diego, California. (photo via f11photo/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Q. What are your goals in this role? The things that you hope to achieve in order to leave your own unique mark on this position and destination?

First and foremost, I’m focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ve seen that we can do a much better job of rebuilding the tourism economy through a diverse and inclusive lens. I’m proud of our tourism accelerator program, which is focused on supporting women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and veteran-owned business owners. We’re also looking to hire a director-level position for our DE&I and community engagement work.

We learned through COVID to better communicate with our local stakeholders like our residents. That communication should be ongoing and help educate residents about the value that visitors bring to a destination. And value is not just generating taxes and creating jobs, but social benefits, creating memories, bridging cultural divides, and fostering new relationships. My hope is travel will be viewed as essential.

Q. What advice would you give other women who aspire to similar destination leadership roles?

The first thing I would say is you didn’t get here by yourself. And because of that, you definitely have a responsibility to pay it forward. Make sure you lean into that responsibility.

The travel and tourism space is very diverse from a business standpoint, whether it’s hotels or attractions or DMOs or consulting or being an entrepreneur. Make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses and look for the best outlet to be the strongest leader you can be.

In addition, it’s OK to be vulnerable. We don’t have to have all the answers. Lean into the talent you have on your team. And know that you are not in this alone. You should have a kitchen cabinet crew that you can rely on and tap into for advice and feedback

And finally, enjoy the journey. Sometimes we get caught up in the go, go, go. Take a moment to stop and applaud your efforts and say, “job well done.” Take a moment to enjoy that. And then move on to the next project. We don’t always give ourselves enough grace to enjoy the wins!

Liz Bittner
Liz Bittner President & CEO – Travel South USA. (photo courtesy of Travel South USA)

Liz Bittner, president and chief executive officer for Travel South USA

Liz Bittner heads the oldest and largest regional destination marketing alliance in the United States. Travel South USA is a 12-state organization owned by the state tourism offices of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Bittner’s role not only involves on-the-ground work in the 12 states she represents, but also includes managing offices and marketing programs in far-flung locations around the globe—from Australia and New Zealand to Europe, Brazil, and Canada.

It’s a massive role that Bittner approaches with infectious enthusiasm. And over the years, her passion for the job has resulted in numerous awards including the 2019 US Travel Industry’s Mercury Award for Best International Marketing Communicator Award from the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts. In addition, in 2018, Travel South USA received the Most Improved Overseas Destination Marketing Organization by National Tourism Awards in China.

Q. Was being head of a major destination marketing organization a long-held career goal, something that you had long focused on working to achieve?

I’d love to say yes, but the answer is no. When I was coming out of college, I didn’t know DMOs existed, much less that there was a promotional team behind them.

However, I love being in this role. I feel like I found my calling. Every morning you should get up and love you job and I honestly do.

I started in the hotel industry fresh out of college. I had experience at hotels throughout my university years and I grew from local hotels to hotel chains. I was fortunate to be tapped to come to Atlanta in order to run an international division of what was then Days Inn, bringing folks domestically and internationally to the U.S. and to the south to experience the most authentic and unique place in the world.

I moved to Atlanta and fell in love with the job and the industry. I feel very fortunate to have found a career in destination marketing and management. It is evolving at lightning speed—due to technology, globalization, customer behavior shifts and workforce challenges.

Q. Is being head of a major destination marketing organization a role that has historically been held by men? And how does it feel to reach this senior level of leadership as a woman?

I’m the fifth president and executive director of this association in its 55-plus years and all of the others were men—so yes, this is a role that has historically been held by men. Times are changing and I think the role of destination marketers has changed.

Do I think there are enough women in executive leadership positions? No. I think women should advocate for each other and advocate more. These roles are still primarily filled by men.

I think there are two reasons for that. I think it’s because of the child-rearing time frame and also the fact that the travel industry is such a time-challenged industry—if you love it, and you get to those higher leadership levels, you have to live the job—and work balance becomes incredibly hard. I’ve been very fortunate to be in positions that allowed me to raise what I think are great children and still do my job.

I don’t think women advocate for each other well enough. I would like to see us help each other more and lift women up to the next level. Men do that better. Women need to do that more, we need to hire each other and we need to promote each other.

Nashville, Tennessee's Broadway Strip
Nashville, Tennessee’s Broadway Strip

Q. What does a day in the life of a major U.S. destination leader typically involve? And what elements of your job do you enjoy most?

My organizational role is focused on getting international visitors to want to come to the south. I spend my time telling the story of why you should spend your vacation time or business trip in the south.

I work in all kinds of verticals including with state government, and economic development. I work with journalists and tour operators. I participate in a lot of meetings and Zoom has become my best friend.

And then I travel. I’m in the travel industry. But not every place is glamorous. A lot of times I just see the inside of a hotel or convention center and then the trip back and forth to the airport in taxis. However, the people and places and experiences are very rewarding and I love it.

Q. What are your goals in this role? The things that you hope to achieve to leave your own unique mark on this position and destination?

In the big picture, two things. Pre-pandemic, the south received about $8 billion in international visitation. Certainly, the pandemic eviscerated that. Our goal is not to just dig ourselves out of this deep hole, but to get to $10 billion

Everything I do is around ‘Do you think that will get me to $10 billion?’ That’s for hotels, restaurants, attractions, guided services, and barbecue joints. I see this as missionary work. I just want to share what is so cool about this region and what is so different.

The other goal I have is that I don’t think there’s a real understanding that international inbound business is an export in the U.S. and we as Americans can help balance our trade around the world. We consume a lot of things in the United States, and in order to balance that trade, we have to be able to sell these international folks something they can’t get in their own country. And so tourism is one of those exports. I think that travel is crucial to the economy and the GDP of America and crucial to our overall understanding of the world. Travel is the antithesis of bigotry and hate.

Q. What advice would you give other women who aspire to similar destination leadership roles?

I could say the standard things like working hard. But what I think is really far more important to say is to find a good mentor. Find someone who will help you and coach you along, to help you make good decisions. That mentor doesn’t have to be a boss or someone from your line of business. I have had both men and women that have been my guide and north star. I rely on both a lot. Sometimes just to bounce things off of.

I would also say don’t stay where you’re not respected and wanted. Sometimes you have to go, in order to grow. I would also say to women in executive positions that if you don’t have a couple of women you’re helping along, you’re not doing a good favor to women. Time is the most valuable thing we have. Every couple of months have a call to check in with that woman you’re mentoring.

Rachel Sacco
Rachel Sacco, President & CEO of Experience Scottsdale. (photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale)

Rachel Sacco, President & CEO of Experience Scottsdale

Rachel Sacco has been an integral part of Scottsdale’s marketing efforts since 1986. She began her work with the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce as the director of its convention and tourism department and later became executive vice president when the Chamber formed the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1987.

In 2001, when Experience Scottsdale, (which at the time was still known as Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau), was separated from the Chamber, Sacco was elevated to being its first president and CEO.

Over the past few decades, Sacco has repeatedly been recognized for her achievements in the hospitality industry. Highlights of her awards and honors include being inducted into Scottsdale’s History Hall of Fame, the Arizona State University College of Public Programs Alumni Chapter Hall of Fame, and the Arizona Governor’s Tourism Hall of Fame.

Q. Was being head of a major destination marketing organization a long-held career goal, something that you had long focused on working to achieve?

It was a chance encounter that led me to my life’s work. When I graduated from college, I began working for a communication company in the private sector. After presenting at a seminar one day, a gentleman approached me and told me I would be the perfect fit to take over his position at the company that is now Visit Phoenix.

He introduced me to his boss, and I ended up landing the job. I worked in various roles at Visit Phoenix over the years until I was recruited to the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce in 1986. Though I never set out to be in the tourism industry, I absolutely fell in love with it. Every day is different every month is different, and this industry has taken me on an incredible and rewarding journey throughout my career.

Scottsdale, Arizona
Saguaro sunset silhouette, Scottsdale, Arizona. Credit: Getty/ Eric Mischke

Q. Is leading a destination marketing organization a role that has historically been held by men? And how does it feel to reach this senior level of leadership as a woman?

It’s important during Women’s History Month to look back at where people started and to what we aspire. Early on in my career, I was one of the few women to hold a C-level title. Women were certainly contributing in so many ways, but we were only just beginning to feel that magnetic pull of the boardroom table. And to know it was not just our right, but our responsibility to have a seat at the table.

I believe women are hardwired for the C-level because of their innate talents. Women are natural connectors, communicators, and collaborators. We are so good at bringing disparate conversations together. You may not find them in a job description, but I have found these qualities to be a very important part of this role.

Q. What does a day in the life of a major U.S. destination leader typically involve? And what elements of your job do you enjoy most?

You have to be ready to put your track shoes on. You can have your calendar as your compass, but your compass is ever-changing. And get prepared to get out from behind your desk to meet and talk with people.

Our organization is a community connector, so I serve on several boards in the community. This morning, I had a board meeting for a philanthropic organization. Later, I will be interviewing a candidate for a new role at Experience Scottsdale. I will be meeting with colleagues over lunch to discuss our newly released five-year tourism strategic plan. And tonight, I will be working with a museum to assist them with strategic planning.

I’m meeting with stakeholders, team members and clients every day to see how Experience Scottsdale can improve—to determine what’s working and what’s not working. Some days, I’m traveling to connect with fellow destination leaders to discuss ideas and issues facing the industry.

My favorite part of the job is sitting down with people and sharing what I love about Scottsdale, this place I call home. I love hearing from visitors and clients about their impressions of Scottsdale, and I love seeing their eyes light up when I tell them something they never knew about the destination.

Q. What are your goals in this role? The things that you hope to achieve to leave your own unique mark on this position and destination?

My goals have always been and will always be the same: I want tourism to be a force for good in our community so that Scottsdale residents understand that their life is better because of this industry.

Arizona just hosted the Super Bowl last month, and that same week, Scottsdale held one of our annual events, the WM Phoenix Open. Our community was buzzing. During our high season and mega-events, our residents may have to take a different approach to their daily lives – as visitors are filling our streets and scooping up restaurant reservations and tee times. Especially at times like this, my hope is for residents to appreciate all that tourism adds to their life. Busy streets mean there’s revenue filling our tax coffers and there’s demand for new amenities and services that locals and visitors alike enjoy.

Q. What advice would you give other women who aspire to similar destination leadership roles?

My advice to anyone, really, is to follow your own talents and to surround yourself with people who have the talents you may not necessarily have strength in. I don’t do any of this work alone. My six vice presidents are all women with their own unique talents. They are all strong leaders who have become mentors for their team members, many of whom also are predominately women.

I tell every single candidate I interview and every employee I hire, at all levels, that I expect them to operate as if they were the CEO of their own area. Their response to that tells me where they may need to be coached and where they may have encountered a lack of support in the past. My goal is to help everyone function at their highest level so that they can find that talent within them that they didn’t even know existed.

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Source: TravelPulse

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