Venue Management Veteran Karen Totaro Takes the Helm of TCF Center

May 4, 2021

Detroit’s TCF Center has landed a new general manager. On April 19, Larry Alexander, board chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority announced that Karen Totaro has been tapped by ASM Global to lead the convention center. In her new role, Totaro will be responsible for the overall management, promotion and operation of the facility, leading its team of professionals, building on key industry partnerships in the community and supporting the overall mission of the TCF Center and the DRCFA. 

“Karen Totaro is the right person at the right time to take the TCF Center back to hosting visitors and providing world class service to its valued customers as the pandemic eases,” said Bob McClintock, executive vice president of convention centers for ASM Global, which manages TCF Center. “Over the last decade, TCF Center became a gold standard in areas of security, sustainability, technology and corporate social responsibility. I know with Karen’s leadership [that] events will build on that success.”

A Certified Venue Executive, Totaro is tasked with leading the center’s team in bringing new and repeat business to the Detroit region and on behalf of ASM Global for the DRCFA, will work collaboratively with community stakeholders, clients and the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The decision to take the job at TCF Center was an easy one,” Totaro said. “The spirit of partnership in this industry is going to be that much more successful in Detroit with the former CEO of the CVB leading the DRCFA and the former GM of the TCF Center now leading the CVB.” 

Totaro replaces Claude Molinari, who served as TCF’s general manager for a decade until Jan 1, 2021, when he assumed the role of president and CEO of the DMCVB.

Totaro is no stranger to the world of venue management, and her resume is a who’s who of some of the biggest and brightest facilities in the country. Most recently, she was COO for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, and prior to that, general manager of the Atlantic City Convention Center, assistant general manager of the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati and assistant executive director at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.  

While with the OCC’s leadership team, Totaro steered the venue toward achieving one of the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications for a convention center in the U.S., and during her tenure at each consecutive facility, went on to be involved in advanced sustainability initiatives. According to TCF officials, she sees the highly acclaimed sustainability program at TCF Center as a golden opportunity to team build and inform clients on environmental impacts and center innovation with training and educational opportunities. 

According to Alexander, Totaro is coming in with expertise and knowledge of facility operations, labor contracts, sales and service that will serve the center well in getting past COVID-19.  

“I believe she is the best leader to continue to inspire the center’s talented team in helping us sprint forward from the pandemic impact,” he said. 

Totaro has served in multiple leadership roles for the International Association of Venue Managers, including being the youngest woman at the time ever voted to serve as chairman of the board. She is also one of few female general managers to lead a top 20 convention center in the U.S., including Ellen Schwartz, general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center (an ASM Global venue) and Kirsten Dimond, vice president and general manager at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas.

Lisa Canada, vice chairperson of the DRCFA, headed the board’s selection committee tasked with interviewing candidates before recommending Totaro to ASM Global for the position. 

“I am always thrilled to see the leadership gap for women narrow, and especially in the appointment of this position that is so important to the convention center and the Southeast Michigan region,” Canada said. “Karen’s leadership style and experience in innovation will help this venue get back to business quickly and efficiently.”

Totaro also brings a litany of industry accolades to her new position. She was named a “Woman of Influence” by Venues Today Magazine; was the cover story of FM (Facility Manager) Magazine; was awarded the “Elite Award” and highlighted as one of the “Top 12 Women Convention Center Executives” by Facilities & Destination Magazine, and led the Portland and San Diego teams in achieving the coveted IAVM “Venue Excellence Award” award.


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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.