Straight Talk with Julie Coker, President & CEO, San Diego Tourism

May 18, 2021

Ask Julie Coker, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, what inspired her to pursue a career in the hospitality and destination marketing industries and she’ll point to a high school waitressing job that taught her the art of taking care of people.

“I’ve always had this A-type personality, so…I was always focused on taking orders correctly, ensuring hot food was served hot and cold food cold, but I also enjoyed helping people make memories whether they came in for a special birthday, graduation, vacation or night away from the kids,” she explains. “I knew the customer service I delivered made a difference in that person’s experience.”

That job inspired Coker to pursue a college degree in hospitality management at Johnson & Wales University, where she graduated magna cum laude. She soon hit the ground running, spending more than two decades rising through the ranks at Hyatt, after which she transitioned into the DMO world, assuming the role of executive vice president of conventions, and then president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. Now, as leader of the SDTA, Coker oversees efforts to promote and sell the California coastal city as a top destination for meetings, conventions and tourism. 

TSNN had a chance to spend time with Coker to hear what it’s like to start a new job during a pandemic, how COVID has impacted destination marketing and what she most looks forward to once the world opens up again.

What is the biggest challenge your organization has had to navigate during this difficult time? 

Like everyone in the tourism and hospitality industry, we had to navigate brutal business conditions coupled with ongoing uncertainty. That was made more complicated by the fact that I joined the San Diego Tourism Authority as president and CEO in June 2020 at a time when all team members were working remotely. My initial one-on-one meetings with team members were over Zoom. 

So, while I was thrilled to join the SDTA and sell and promote this amazing city, there was a host of challenges that comes with learning a new job, getting accustomed to a new city during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, bonding with team members that are all remote and getting acquainted with members and stakeholders that are experiencing one of the most devastating years in their entire career.   

How has the destination marketing industry been changed during COVID-19 and do you see things going back to “normal” post-pandemic?

Both the message and the scope of our marketing had to pivot to the times we were faced with. Prior to COVID-19, we marketed San Diego across the nation and the globe. We quickly realized we had to shift our focus to our own backyard and a much closer drive market—Southern California and Arizona, primarily.  

In addition, we had to encourage and inspire San Diegans to re-discover their own city and patronize our local restaurants, enjoy an overnight stay at a local hotel and support our attractions. Our marketing message shifted from happiness and smiles to wellbeing and health through our Safe Destination and Safe Traveler pledges. As consumer confidence builds, we will return to a national marketing campaign as well as a full return to our overseas markets when appropriate.  

Do you see virtual events as a permanent fixture in the trade show and events industry or just a stop-gap until live events returns? If the former, how do you believe this will impact event destinations such as San Diego?

Even prior to the pandemic, many meetings and conventions offered some sort of hybrid or virtual component, which can lead to increased reach and engagement. I think that will continue for the foreseeable future. But I firmly believe that we are all Zoomed out and hungering for face-to-face contact. And I expect in-person meetings and conventions to bounce back as vaccinations ramp up and consumer confidence continues to improve.

What have you learned most about yourself during the pandemic? 

You are stronger than you know. I have said that phrase a thousand times to friends and family members going through difficult situations to help inspire or motivate them. But this time I needed to say it to myself, and not only say it but believe it. It also drove home the need to be honest, kind and transparent when times are tough. During difficult times, people are looking for leadership, and I found being honest and up-front with the team in Philadelphia and San Diego helped calm those fears and allowed both teams to focus on what was important, which is taking care of our customers, our stakeholders and our community. 

What kind of self-care has been key for your mental health during this past year?

Keeping in touch with family and friends was so important. I also, like so many people, got a puppy, Piper, and that has kept me busy.

Where is the first place you want to travel when things open and why?

This may sound a little cliché, but this is my first time living and working on the West Coast, so I really want to explore California and take in all the great arts and culture, awesome cuisine and natural beauty. Often we take those things for granted, so I want to really spend time getting to know my new home state. 

 

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Partner Voices

As event professionals and destinations adjust, adapt and evolve in these uncharted waters, it is imperative that substantial resources be put in place for all of the people responsible for planning and executing trade shows, expositions and conventions. An example is Mohegan Sun, which built an industry-leading, COVID-19 Resource Center with a combination of pictures from recently held successful events (the property reopened on May 1, 2020) along with several widely available and informative documents, such as an evolving operational framework: