It’s not easy taking the reins of a city in the midst of a global pandemic—particularly a city that relies heavily on tourism and conventions. But it’s a challenge that Casandra Matej was more than ready for when she was named president and CEO of Visit Orlando last month.
Matej takes on the role after two decades of experience in the hospitality and tourism industry, most recently serving as president and CEO of Visit San Antonio—where she helped the Texas city achieve record highs in convention sales and marketing programs, and led the development of one of the largest tourism ambassador programs in the country. Earlier in her career, Matej worked with Visit Dallas, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Hyatt.
Matej has long been an influential voice in the industry. She currently serves on the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association, and was formerly on the boards of Destinations International and the Texas Travel Industry Association. She’s also received numerous industry awards and recognition for supporting local businesses, philanthropic communities and women in leadership.
We caught up with Matej to learn how she's reached this point in her career. Here are her tips for being a strong leader during times of crisis, finding a support system, advancing your career as a woman and more.
1. Remember why you do what you do.
Matej says that taking over this role in the midst of a pandemic has, unsurprisingly, felt a bit different than previous job transitions. “On my very first day I walked into this cavernous office with me and only three other staff members there, because the majority of the team is still working virtually. My first all-team meeting was a virtual meeting,” she remembers, adding that the biggest challenge has been finding ways to do more with a smaller staff and budget.
Matej stays grounded by remembering that her job's primary purpose is to give back to the community. “Why do DMOs exist? They exist to bring conventions, meetings and visitors to their destination—for the benefit of their local economy,” she explains. “So right now, when you look at a community like Orlando where [conventions and tourism are] a top industry, the community certainly relies on us—and that's why the recovery is so important."
She adds that with Orlando being one of the most-visited destinations in the United States, she’s acutely aware that other regions, meeting professionals and organizations are looking at the city to see how it recovers. “We've been fortunate: We've still hosted 50 events very safely in Orlando [during the pandemic]. People are looking at us to see how we’re doing it,” says Matej. “I hope that I am able to be forward-thinking enough, and work with all of our partners locally and regionally and statewide to help our economy recover. What greater challenge and opportunity is there, but to help lead not only the organization but the community into recovery?”
2. Partnerships matter.
Matej has watched this industry weather 9/11, the Great Recession and other challenging times. So, what has she learned?
“We're better together,” she says. “Whether it’s local partnerships, regional, statewide, national or even global, it helps extend the reach and the visibility. Partnering with organizations like Connect, or with industry associations and other designations—it matters during crisis because you can band together, you can get things done and you can share best practices.”
Matej adds that on Tuesday nights during the thick of the pandemic, a group of her counterparts at DMOs around the country would get together virtually. “We’d ask each other, ‘Hey, how are you handling this?’ all the way to, ‘Hey, we need to partner regionally,’ or ‘We need to partner with our state organizations.’ It’s all about partnerships and having that support system."
3. Be creative and flexible.
Creativity is never as crucial as during times of crisis, Matej says. “So whether it was 9/11 or the downturn of the economy, or even now in the pandemic, our industry has been so creative. [For example,] we've had a program in Orlando called Magical Dining, where you could go support a local restaurant and a portion of those dollars went to a local food bank. There were programs like that popping up with DMOs all over the U.S. So to me, it’s all about focusing on creative solutions and community collaboration to help businesses.”
Flexibility is also a key trait in any good leader, Matej adds, especially when climbing the career ladder. “To sit at this seat, I think everyone, particularly women, needs to be flexible. I was very fortunate that I was able to move from Dallas to San Antonio, then San Antonio to Orlando,” she points out. “If you notice that there's a door of opportunity that opens, don't be frightened to walk through it. You've got to be bold enough to just walk through it.”
4. Believe in yourself.
Matej has a particular passion for helping women advance to leadership roles, noting that when she received her CDME (certified destination management executive) credential through Destinations International, she even wrote a paper on the topic. “Back when I became the CEO of Visit San Antonio in 2011, I was the only female [DMO leader] in the top 50 markets. But now, you have my friend Julie Coker out in San Diego, you've got Martha Sheridan leading Boston. There’s been progress made.”
But there’s more progress to go, she says. The industry has a lot of number-twos that are women, Matej notes, but not as many CEOs. “What happens when a CEO leaves is that typically the board wants to do a national search. My wish for the destinations industry is that we're more thoughtful on a succession-planning process, which I would hope would include women.”
While the industry changes, Matej does offer some advice to women hoping to advance in this or any field. “You have to believe in yourself, first of all,” she says. “Women are so methodical that we think we have to have every piece of experience that's in that job description. But you've got to believe that you either have the education, the experience or even the common sense to do that job.”
5. Show, don’t tell.
“One thing I’ve seen from people on my team who are superstars? They don't tell me that they're good at what they do—they show me,” says Matej. “So many times when people are in front of leadership, they want to tell them, ‘Hey, I did this.’ But to me, it's about actions speaking much louder than words.”
6. Find a support system.
In addition to her support system of other DMO leaders, Matej leans on friends with similar career trajectories. “More than mentors, I believe in a support system. One of my dearest friends has had a similar career path, who runs an association. When we first met about 26 years ago in the business, she was a manager and I was a manager. And then we both became directors,” she remembers. “It's been so great to have that support system of a few friends or colleagues to really be able to talk to, who really understand.”
Top photo: Aphotostory/Shutterstock