Women at the Helm: Casandra Matej, President & CEO, Visit Orlando
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.