Women At the Helm: Ellen Schwartz, General Manager, Los Angeles Convention Center
Ellen Schwartz isn’t exactly afraid to speak her mind. In fact, being outspoken is more like her superpower. A dynamic yet down-to-Earth industry professional who has worked for more than 40 years in the trade show and events industry, she exudes the kind of confidence that comes from years of experience and the wisdom gained from working her way up the ranks in show management, convention center sales and marketing roles and finally, venue management.
In this first edition of our new interview series about women in leading roles in the meetings and events industry, TSNN had the privilege of speaking with Schwartz about the elephant in the room when it comes to top roles in the venue side of the industry: Where are all the women? Here’s what she had to say about this gender gap, the progress our industry is making and how much further we still need to go to achieve a more equitable, diverse and inclusive industry.
When and how did you get into convention center management and what do you like most about it?
After years as a show manager, I moved to the convention center management side of the business in the late ’90s at the Miami Beach Convention Center as the director of sales. I spent three years there with SMG and in May of 2002, came back home to Southern California to join the Long Beach Convention Center (SMG) team. I moved up to the Los Angeles Convention Center (then AEG, now ASM Global) in October 2013, first as the vice president of sales and marketing, then assistant general manager in 2016 and have been the general manager since July 2018.
Our business is so varied, which is one of the things I love most about it. No two days are alike, and the only thing that’s constant is change. And of course, the people. We have the opportunity to meet and work with so many different types of folks and over the years in the business have developed amazing professional and personal relationships.
Why do you think there are not more women in leadership positions in convention centers in North America?
I think there are many women leaders in convention centers, it’s the GM or top position that has the void. Traditionally, the GMs come from operations or finance backgrounds, two areas that are male-dominated. Sales and event services have many women leaders but it’s been the transition from there to the top spot that’s been lacking. Recently, there are more GMs coming from sales backgrounds like mine, as the importance of revenue generation and the need for more diverse leadership has become more important.
Diverse teams are the best teams. I’m incredibly fortunate to have an amazing leadership team here at the LACC—and we are a diverse bunch, with four women and four men in total and a wide range of ethnicities.
What are the qualities that women bring to venue management that empower them to excel at their jobs?
The ability to see the big picture and have attention to detail. The understanding and value of building consensus, the importance and focus on relationships (both building and sustaining them), inherent strength and resilience, and for me, a sense of humor!
What are the biggest challenges of being a woman at the helm in a historically male-dominated industry?
I don’t know that I’ve felt that being a woman has been the challenge—COVID and the navigation of the pandemic were much more challenging. I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind, which is both an asset and a liability, and I don’t feel intimidated easily. Having confidence in who you are and the experience and knowledge you bring to the table has enabled me to feel comfortable in any room and earn the respect of those around me.
During your time managing the LACC, what have been your biggest successes that you’re most proud of?
As GM, I’m incredibly proud of the teams here—both pre-pandemic and now. Particularly through this trying time, when we went through staff reductions, the remaining team has worked unbelievably hard and well together. People have stepped up and into roles that they didn’t originally sign up for, but the “we’ll do whatever it takes” attitude that has prevailed has made us stronger and will position us well as we staff back up and return to the event business.
We did amazingly well during the time we were “closed.” We found revenue by storing rental cars, serving as a field medical station, making more than a million meals for seniors and the unhoused, and hosting film, TV and commercial location shoots, including the Grammy Awards telecast, Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, commercials seen on the Super Bowl for Pepsi and Bud Lite, and more.
Pre-pandemic, the events we host make us all proud, including our amazing annual events such as LA Art Show, Fit Expo, Abilities Expo, E3 Expo, Anime Expo, LA Auto Show, LA Comic Con, Ski Dazzle and citywide events like Adobe Max, Siggraph, Mobile World Congress, American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting and more.
What can the meetings and events industry—and the women in it—do to help create more gender (and racial) parity in convention center leadership?
We seem to be moving in the right direction. No change happens overnight. Our industry is full of capable women—and we seem to be coming to the table with more confidence than in the past. Having opportunities and successes paves the way for more. The recognition and acknowledgment that diversity is good for business reasons have definitely taken hold. As this continues, I believe more and more women and people of color will take on the challenges of leadership in our industry.
Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.