Women at the Helm: Casandra Matej, President & CEO, Visit Orlando

January 26, 2022

In February of last year, 28-year travel and tourism industry veteran Casandra Matej took the helm at Visit Orlando as the first female president and CEO in the destination marketing organization’s 37-year history. While assuming a leadership role during a global pandemic is no walk in the park, Matej accepted the challenge, focusing the organization’s energies on spurring the recovery of the powerful Orlando tourism industry, which, pre-pandemic, drew more than 75 million visitors to the region and supports approximately 41% of the local workforce. For Matej and her teams, failure was not an option. 

“To me, one of the most important aspects of the travel and tourism industry is the positive impact it has on the destinations they serve,” she says. “This is the big ‘why’ of what I do: to give back to the community I call home. In Central Florida, the travel and tourism industry generates $75 billion in economic impact, which is critical to our community and for enhancing the quality of life for residents.”

If anyone was going to lead Visit Orlando through a downturn and toward recovery, it’s hard to imagine someone more qualified than Matej, who has spent her entire career in travel and tourism, previously serving for more than a decade as president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, as well as holding leadership roles with VisitDallas, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Hyatt Hotels. Besides being active in local travel and hospitality organizations, she serves as a national board member of U.S. Travel and is co-chair of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force, a group of more than 50 leaders across local government, the business community, nonprofits and the healthcare sector.

As she embarks upon her second year with Visit Orlando, TSNN had a chance to catch up with Matej to hear about her challenges over the last year, her thoughts about gender disparity in travel and tourism leadership and the accomplishments she’s most proud of as she reflects upon her career so far. 

As the first-ever female president and CEO of Visit Orlando, do you believe the destination marketing industry is “keeping up with the times” when it comes to gender parity in leadership or does it still have work to do?  

When I first took on the role of CEO of Visit San Antonio more than 10 years ago, at that moment in time, I was one of a very few female CEOs in the top 50 markets leading destination marketing organizations. While it has gotten better in recent years, there are still gaps we need to address and there is always room for improvement. There are definitely more No. 2 female executives in destination marketing organizations, so there is a future pipeline. Hopefully, when the opportunity presents itself, they will be strongly considered for that CEO position. As an industry, we have some incredibly talented individuals at every level in this business, and we need to make sure these diverse voices have representation in leadership roles to the benefit of our entire industry. 

What have been your biggest challenges since you began your current role with the CVB and how have you overcome them? 

This role is an incredible responsibility at any time, but especially as we navigate a global pandemic. We know that all eyes are on Orlando and our recovery. When I started at Visit Orlando, I set four key priorities: discovery, recovery, partnerships and DEI initiatives.  

Discovery was critical as someone new to the area, so that I could listen and identify new areas of opportunity, forge new connections and personally experience what the destination has to offer. 

For recovery, working toward the full economic recovery of our destination is at the heart of everything we do at Visit Orlando. It was key to find ways to assist our members to make sure, as we move forward, that our entire destination was ready to welcome back travelers when they were ready to return. 

To me, collaboration is the key to everyone’s success and even more so during this time, so it was important to focus on partnership to strengthen our relationships with multiple organizations on the local, state and national levels. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion must be intentional. There are still gaps in our industry that must be addressed, but here at Visit Orlando, we are determined to continue to drive positive change.   

As we look forward to 2022, we have introduced a three-year strategic plan to outline Visit Orlando’s new vision and mission, elevate Orlando’s brand positioning and plan to welcome 80 million visitors at the end of 2024. We have invested in major marketing campaigns, a comprehensive sales strategy for our domestic, international and meetings markets, and keeping a focus on growth, inclusion and having our work benefit our community. 

What have been your biggest successes that you're most proud of?

Looking back, some of the biggest challenges have led to some of my proudest moments: leading through 9/11, downturns in the economy and now, the pandemic. 

Although I’ve only been in Orlando for a year, I’m proud of our meetings and conventions industry recovery. Working together with local leaders and stakeholders, Orlando has led the way to bring back safe and healthy meetings, hosting 200 events and one million attendees at the convention center alone.  

And like many of the readers, I am a wife and mother, and the successes and wellbeing of my husband and children continue to be a great source of pride.  

What are the qualities that women bring to CVB leadership that empower them to excel at their jobs?  

With more than 28 years in the industry, I have met a lot of different personalities in various leadership roles. In my view, the most enduring qualities are optimism, empathy and a positive, inclusive leadership style.  

What can event and destination marketing industry professionals do to help create more gender (and racial) parity in the tourism and events industry?  

DE&I should be a priority for every organization and must be intentional. It is one of the key priorities that we established when I arrived at Visit Orlando. Destination organizations have a voice and we should use that voice. We need to make sure diverse thoughts are represented throughout our industry on every level.   

DE&I is going to be woven into every program and initiative at Visit Orlando. This includes ensuring the makeup of our board and staff is reflective of the local community, creating a positive organizational culture and committing to becoming the most diverse, welcoming and inclusive destination possible for visitors, attendees and locals. 

Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to lpsavas@tsnn.com.


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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.