Straight Talk: Claude Molinari, President & CEO, Visit Detroit

December 14, 2022

Starting a new job in a difficult business climate can be challenging enough, but what about during the height of a global pandemic? That’s exactly where Claude Molinari found himself when he took the helm of Visit Detroit as its new president and CEO in January of 2021 as the global events industry was reeling from the impacts of COVID-19. A self-proclaimed extrovert by nature, Molinari’s outgoing and positive attitude certainly came in handy as he worked tirelessly to guide the CVB and its team through one of the biggest challenges travel and tourism has ever faced.

“It is important to remember that as difficult as the pandemic has been on our organization and the industry, COVID-19 is, first and foremost, a human tragedy,” Molinari said. “So many people have been permanently scarred through the loss of a job, illness or the loss of a loved one. Understanding that suffering and working to treat people with empathy have allowed our organization to navigate many of the most significant challenges.” 

With the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, Molinari is back to focusing on the main job at hand: providing the leadership and strategic direction necessary to enable Visit Detroit to attract meetings and tourism business to metropolitan Detroit and accelerate economic growth. He also oversees the Detroit Sports Commission, a Visit Detroit subsidiary responsible for securing amateur sporting events throughout the region.  

Molinari came to Visit Detroit after a decade of leadership at Huntington Place, where he served as general manager from 2016–2021 and assistant general manager from 2010 –2016. Before leading the 16th largest convention center in North America, Molinari served five years as regional director of operations for ASM Global, overseeing more than two-dozen East Coast facilities and, while with the company, managed facilities in four different states.   

“I have more than two decades of experience working in the event and convention center industry…[but] working to help people have exceptional experiences when they travel is the best part of my job,” he said.

TSNN sat down with Molinari to hear about his first two years on the job, the accomplishments he is most proud of during that time, the biggest post-pandemic challenges facing the industry today and his favorite off-site Detroit experiences that event visitors should make sure not to miss when visiting the Motor City. 

You took the helm of Visit Detroit during the COVID-19 pandemic. What were some of the biggest challenges you and the organization went through during that time?

Before I joined, the near-total halt in global travel meant that Visit Detroit had furloughed some of our team. That was incredibly painful for the organization, and I have been so grateful that throughout 2021 and '22, we have been able to bring back many people and hire new dynamic team members. 

The pandemic has also been remarkably difficult for our region’s hotels, restaurants and event spaces. Our team has worked extremely hard to support these cornerstone community institutions by leading initiatives to restart meetings safely, advocating on their behalf at the local and state level, and being a leading voice on the importance of travel. These efforts paid off in 2022, with the robust return of meetings, conventions and leisure travelers throughout the Detroit region.   

What were some of the most important accomplishments and greatest lessons you've learned during your first two years on the job, and how have you been applying these learnings in your leadership role?

For me, the pandemic reinforced the most important lesson of leadership: how you treat people matters. Empathy and caring for the team have always been important, but the dislocation caused by the pandemic made it even more critical at a time when we all needed more support. Organizations thrive when everyone on the team feels committed to a mission and empowered to do their work. My role is to ensure that I break down silos and roadblocks that hold the team back. Serving the team requires a lot of listening and understanding. Those two pillars have led Visit Detroit to our most important accomplishment: undertaking our multi-year strategic plan.  

Working with an outside consultant, we engaged everyone on our team and stakeholders throughout the community to develop a plan that will allow Visit Detroit to be an organization with a highly attuned culture and a vibrant destination that people can’t wait to see. During my tenure, we have won hundreds of meetings, helped spark a strong recovery of travel for our region and secured the 2024 NFL Draft, but all of that is secondary to the work we are doing to be the best organization for our team. 

When hosting large trade shows and events in the city, what are you hearing are the biggest challenges show organizers and meeting planners are facing at this time?

Our industry’s most significant issue is staffing, and it is important to recognize that this challenge predated COVID-19. While almost every sector of the economy is being impacted, no one feels it more than hospitality. Workers in our industry are incredibly giving of their time and effort, but everyone is being asked to do more with fewer team members. I routinely hear stories from general managers and hotel sales managers saying they are working shifts at the front desk or cleaning because that’s just what it takes to get the job done. For show organizers and meeting planners, the worry is that it will impact the overall attendee experience.  

How is Visit Detroit assisting event organizers with these issues?

While Visit Detroit hasn’t been able to change the national workforce trends, our team has been working hard with our hospitality partners at hotels, the convention center and restaurants to be ready for events. We do this in three ways. First, our calendar of events allows our hospitality partners to prepare better when events are coming into town. Secondly, we provide partner training for hotels and restaurants before the event so that teams know what to expect when a convention and event is in town. Each event has its unique flavor and helping hotels and restaurants be prepared means attendees will have a better experience. Finally, our team is actively out and about during events to help address situations that arise and support visitors to our community. Detroit is an incredible city, and Southeast Michigan is a beautiful region. We are committed to ensuring that everyone has a fantastic experience while here. 

What are some of the most important developments that make Detroit an ideal destination for trade shows and meetings?

Detroit is the home of American innovation, permeating every facet of our culture. The first electric vehicle charging road is being built in the city, Detroit was named one of the world’s great destinations by TIME and we are the only UNESCO City of Design in the United States because of our remarkable art and architecture. The region’s rich diversity has helped to create iconic music styles like Motown and Techno and an incredible culinary scene that blends flavors from every corner of the globe. Detroit also has the No. 1 riverfront in America, according to USA Today readers. 

Our region has two state-of-the-art convention centers and dozens of magnificent hotels where meetings can be held. Show organizers and attendees will not only have a great experience in the region; we believe our culture of innovation will inspire people while they are here. 

What are a few of your favorite off-site experiences in Detroit that event organizers and attendees shouldn't miss, whether as a group activity or on their own during downtime?

Visitors to Detroit should check out some of our exceptional museums, cultural attractions and music venues. The Charles H. Wright Museum for African American History, Motown Museum, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Art Museum just north of the city, and the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation are fantastic places to explore. I would also recommend listening to live music at Cliff Bells, Willis Show Bar, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Bert’s Marketplace or the Aretha Jazz Café at the Music Hall.

Don’t miss any event-related news: Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter HERE, listen to our latest podcast HERE and engage with us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram!

Add new comment

Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.