It was a coffee klatch, of sorts, only the discussion among the women dressed in business suits was not about their personal lives. Gathered at a breakfast session during July's annual meeting of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB) in Detroit, the women were discussing the challenges they face as chief executive officers of a growing number of the country's convention and visitor bureaus.

"I never saw so many women eager to attend a 7 a.m. meeting," quips Susan Haymo, president of the Akron/Summit CVB, about the gathering hosted by this magazine. Indeed, the conversation flowed easily as a feeling of solidarity seemed to arise in the room, as if for the first time women were seeing their journey as more than an individual one. "We can learn a lot from our gender peers," remarks Nicki e. Grossman, president/ CeO, Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB.

Up until as few as five years ago, a meeting of women CeOs from a cross-section of small and mid-size bureaus would have seemed, well, premature. Management of the country's CVBs has been dominated by men since bureaus first started operating a hundred years ago. Nowhere is this more obvious than at IACVB, which, in its 82-year history, has had only one woman chairman of the board and a sprinkling of women board members. IACVB epitomized the good old boy network. But that has changed.

Karen Jordan, formerly the executive director of the Austin CVB, was appointed executive director of the troubled IACVB earlier this year. (See page 14.) Her appointment has drawn a lot of attention, but it is, in a way, the logical outcome of the sharply rising number of women managing convention bureaus. IACVB's membership in the last 12 years has gone from almost exclusively male to nearly half female in 1996. And of its 414 CeO members, 176 of them are women.

What is behind the ascent of women at convention bureaus? Is it just demographics, or do women bring something special to the job? Will more women heading bureaus have any kind of collective impact on the hospitality industry, or for that matter, on meetings and conventions?

The $64,000 Question Part of the reason for the growing number of women heading bureaus is simply the demographics of more women in the workforce. But there are other factors. "The hospitality industry has grown enormously and it is very good to women. There is an active movement, for example, in Florida, to get more minorities and women in this industry," observes Grossman. More specifically, Sandra L. Paulson, president/CeO of the Tempe CVB, points out that the major growth in the new convention bureaus have been in small cities. These jobs offer salaries that "are not always attractive to men on the fast track, and so that has provided opportunity for women. And now the industry is finding out women are doing a very good job. It's a good training ground," says Paulson, who may herself be a case in point. eight years ago she was hired to start the Tempe CVB, which now boasts a $1.8 million budget and a full-time staff of ten people.

But do women bring special skills to the job of bureau management? That turns out to be the $64,000 question. Many of the women CeOs say yes, but many are also very squeamish about appearing to be male-bashing.

"One of the things that make women good at this is our integrity. Oh dear, I don't want to sound sexist. I really like guys!" insists Linda Brown, executive director of the Pasadena CVB. She has plenty of company. "I'm not a real gender person," says Judy S. Ryals, executive director of the Huntsville/Madison County CVB. "Women do seem more in tune with detail management, more diplomatic, and more into teambuilding, and that is so much a part of this job."

Marion F. Szurek has headed the San Angelo CVB since 1979. The former Miss Florida calls herself a "dinosaur" in the industry: she is one of the first women to head up a bureau in the United States and the first woman president of the Texas Association of CVBs. "I think women have paid their dues, and they are just naturals for this role. . . .They are very often good at communications, detail management, and politics." She adds, "We keep ourselves accountable. The embezzlers have all been men," referring to incidents over the years of financial scandals at bureaus.

Brenda J. Scott, finishing up her first year as president/CeO of the Mobile CVB, makes no bones about it. "Women are different. We're able to balance things, see things with equal eyes. That's what we learn as wives and mothers. This is the leadership style that is needed in the 21st century, and men are going to have to get some of what we've got!"

Certainly the job of managing a bureau and the role of bureaus have changed dramatically in the last ten years, as CVBs have had to become more accountable for the expenditure of public money, and more savvy about the politics of keeping that money. "Bureaus have to be a lot more responsive to the needs of their various constituents, and sometimes those needs are in conflict. I think this change in roles for bureaus may open the door for more people coming in from outside the industry, and will open up the industry to women. Women are more open to the issues of accountability," Paulson asserts.

Bobbie Patterson has headed the Boise CVB for 15 years. She is one of the most visible and respected women in the industry, the only woman so far to have chaired the IACVB board (and that was during one of the IACVB's most troubled times-in 1994 to 1995, when Steve Carey, the first in-house staff executive for the IACVB, resigned under pressure.) "There is a growing competition for room-tax dollars, and women seem better able to manage that competition by building partnerships with, for instance, cultural committees," Patterson says. "Women negotiate; they don't have the personal ego that men have."

But Linda Howell DiMario, president/CeO of the Long Beach Area CVB, where she manages a $4 million budget, disagrees. She has worked in government, association management, hotels sales, and political campaigns, and has had her own meeting planning firm before getting into bureau management. "Women have just as much ego, they just manifest it differently. They don't hit head on or discuss in blatant aggressiveness." She continues: "For years I have followed the trends and reports that somehow attribute more nurturing characteristics to women in the business environment. I have found that to be a detriment-women are expected to be more compassionate, and I resent that expectation! I want to exhibit the best characteristics of a good manager and, most important, a good leader-and those are genderless."

Good Old Boys, And the Glass Ceiling

Women may have different ideas about whether they bring certain gender qualities to the job. But there is a near unanimous feeling that if the good old boy network is still operating in the realm of bureau management, it is a benign one.

"No, I don't think there is a good old boy network, but then again, some people may think I am part of that network," laughs IACVB's Jordan, who was one of the first women to head up a major bureau when she became president of the Dallas CVB in 1988.

Szurek adds: "Within organizations there will always be groups drawn together because of common interests and backgrounds, and that's something that would naturally happen. I think there is a great chance of getting a good old girl network going for the same reasons."

Whether there is a glass ceiling for women in the industry, is another question. Jordan says there is definitely is a glass ceiling for those who hold number-two positions at bureaus-for both males and females. Others point to the scarcity of women at the largest bureaus.

"Appearances would indicate that there is a glass ceiling, since there are no or few women heading the biggest and mid-size bureaus," observes Jacqueline Y. Powell, president/CeO of the Dayton/Montgomery County CVB. "That will change as more women come into the field."

At 33 years old, Helen Hill, executive director, Charleston Area CVB, is the youngest of the women interviewed for this article, and as such, she may represent the newest wave of women rising to the top of the field. "I've never seen or experienced a good old boy network or a glass ceiling in this field. I was 26 when I got this position," she states.

Says Boise's Patterson: "I don't think there is a glass ceiling in this business. I don't think there is a deep layer of women CeO experience. That's changing." She and other women CeOs add that a big part of the reason a glass ceiling may be perceived to exist may have to do with women's willingness to move to advance their careers. "Women by nature are not going to be willing to be as mobile [as men]," Patterson believes.

Two women who did move are Scott and Brown. Scott says she made a "cross-lateral move that gives a lot of hope to other people that they don't have to follow a traditional career path." She moved from the Tucson CVB, where she was vice president of community and member relations, to head up the Mobile CVB, managing a budget of $2.5 million. Brown, one of the first female sales people at the San Antonio Bureau, moved to the Baltimore bureau then the number two position at the Washington, DC bureau before heading up the Pasadena bureau. "Once you sell for a certain time period, you're looking for the next challenge."

every woman interviewed for this article expressed a deep job satisfaction, despite the political challenges. Many were happy to stay at smaller bureaus and develop them. For them, moving up to bigger bureaus is not the way to build career satisfaction. Patterson, Szurek, and Bonnie L. Carlson, president/CeO of the Bloomington CVB, are good examples. "I'm here because I choose to be here. I've had offers, but I like living here," says Carlson. When she came to the bureau in 1985, it had "no funding and no people." Today it has dedicated funding, a staff of 14, and a budget of $2 million-the state's second-largest bureau.

Collective Impact? The rise of women CeOs in convention bureau management has not been meteoric, but it has been much more dramatic than many other professions and business fields. (The number of female CeOs in association management has been on a steady climb, and women now account for about 39 percent of state, regional, national and international association's CeOs, according to data from the American Society of Association executives.) What kind of impact will the growing number of women CVB CeOs have on the industry?

"These women are my role models!" exclaims Mobile's Brenda Scott. Linda Brown of Pasadena doesn't see any collective impact that woman might have, although she does later note that there might be more alliances and more bonding between the greater numbers of women planners and women CeOs. "In my opinion, it used to be that women preferred to do business with men, but now it's different. Women communicate with other women extremely well."

Patterson's view: "Both women and men [bureau directors] have had to become more politically astute, and better managers of people and funding. But since women tend to be more service-oriented, bureaus run by women may tend to be more service-oriented when it comes to taking care of meetings."

Jordan, Carlson, and Ryals don't, on the other hand, see any collective impact women might have on the industry. For Nicki Grossman of the Fort Lauderdale bureau, that impact is imminent. "When we get our heads together, we will have a cumulative impact. I am going to continue to request some workshops for women to be built into the IACVB meeting."

Cleaning Up, Building Up Looking at the accomplishments of the women interviewed for this article, one is struck by how many of them came into their current positions on the heels of turmoil. For example, Jacqueline Powell of the Dayton/Montgomery CVB was appointed CeO after an expense account problem with the bureau's former leadership; Brenda Scott came to the Mobile CVB following a board probe into allegations of racial problems at the bureau and after one of her predecessors sued the bureau and two local newspapers for slander; when Grossman stepped into her position at Fort Lauderdale she says she had to immediately initiate a major restructuring of the bureaus administrative and financial organization. Howell DiMario arrived on the scene in Long Beach having to rebuild local confidence in the bureau and its recent increased funding. Not one to call herself a "gender person," Howell DiMario nonetheless comments wryly: "Unfortunately, there is a long historical context for women coming in to clean up."

There are also many women who have built their small bureaus up from scratch: Paulson in Tempe, Patterson in Boise, Carlson in Bloomington, and Szurek in San Angelo, to name a few of many examples. Others' accomplishments are just as impressive. Susan Haymo successfully consolidated the Akron/Summit bureau and convention center management without any loss of personnel and change in level of service. She also ended the first full year of operation of the city's new convention center at a financial break-even point. Helen Hill of the Charleston Area CVB was able to bring seven municipalities together in a united effort to sell the Charleston area and has grown her bureau's budget from $700,000 to $2.3 million in seven years.

None of the women interviewed consider themselves a pioneer, although several profess to feeling a sense of obligation toward other women in the field. "I am the first black woman CeO of a convention bureau in the United States," says Brenda Scott. "I want to make sure that I am not the last." Says IACVB's Karen Jordan, "I've never thought about being a woman before [in the context of work] until I got this job. I didn't know if the organization would be ready for a woman in such a key position." So far, she says, she has found the organization and its members very supportive. "I hope I can meet their expectations."

Whatever Jordan does, she will already have achieved something that as little as five years ago would have seemed unlikely. Like the other women interviewed here, she has broken through.

Few things more endemic to the stereotype of male bureau CeOs than their reputed passion for golf. Is the stereotype holding for the new women CeOs in the field? We asked:

Do you play golf? Brown: "Vaguely. I have a putter and a number seven."

Scott: "I don't play, but I want to learn."

Patterson: "I'm a closet golfer. I like to play for relaxation, not competition."

Grossman: "I play tennis, and I do my recreation time on recreation time, and that may be a difference."

Haymo: "Badly. As long as my clients are winning I am a happy soul."

Ryals: "I took lessons three years ago because I thought I might be missing a business opportunity. . . . My greatest contribution to scrambles is my handicap."

Treon: "Yes, I was playing before I took this job."

Jordan: "Pitifully. I don't see how you can be a single parent, have a full-time job, and be a good golfer! It's so time-intensive."

Powell: "I can manage on my own. I find it useful to play."

Szurek: "No, I'm not one of the guys. I work out with weights and swim . . . and speak French and German."

Hill: "I'm asked that a lot since I am the only female on the board for a business-owned by the CVB and local area golf course owners-to promote the area's golf opportunities. But I have no desire to play!"

Paulson: "I took it up when I took this job. (Her team has been a three-time winner of the Adams/Laux Publishing's Coyote Classic.)

Carlson: I've played for 20 years, and I used to be the only woman in [industry] foursomes. I am a member of The Golf [one of the industry's earliest golf associations] and very active in MILO [Meeting Industry Ladies Organization]."

Howell-DiMario: "It's kind of a Holy Grail for me that I will not play golf until the day comes when it is socially acceptable to take a client to my billiards club and put it on the expense account. Men have long perpetuated the myth that the biggest and best business deals are made on the golf course. I suspect that they will hold that belief as long as they can hold a golf club!"

At the annual meeting of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB) in Detroit, the volunteer leaders asked members how the association could better serve them, as part of an on-going strategic planning process. IACVB, whose first in-house staff executive resigned last summer, took well over a year to find and replace its CeO. Karen Jordan, the new CeO, had not yet taken charge when the July meeting occurred.

It was this rudderless ship's volunteer leaders, themselves CeOs and executives of convention bureaus, who asked for, and got, some very honest feedback on the association. Using an electronic audience polling system, members responded to questions, and their comments were displayed on a screen for all to see. Their dissatisfaction was clear.

Their perception of IACVB was that it's an association without a clear mission; one whose board is made up of mostly white males from larger city bureaus, who don't understand the problems of mid-sized to small bureaus (and corresponding budgets); and that it's racked with financial troubles.

Yet what association in transition, growing its membership, becoming truly global, moving from an association management company to a separate, full-time staff in another city has not felt such growth pains? The very issues that members complained most about-lack of responsiveness from the association and not enough value for their dues-were being tackled as the session unfolded. The big-bureau board members, who seemed to be taking most of the rap, responded to the audience's input with surprise and hurt. "We all worked our way up from small bureaus," they said. "We know where you come from, and we are trying to do the best job possible."

Moreover, Bobbie Patterson, past chairman of IACVB, pointed out that at least two of the 16 board members did represent small-budget bureaus. (After next year, however, when the one woman currently on the board finishes her term, the board will be all male.) There were also complaints about lack of communication between the association and its members, but more than a few people in the audience didn't know what "Crossroads" was when the facilitator asked them to rate its effectiveness (which came out high). How can members complain about communication when they don't recognize "Crossroads," the association's newsletter?

The gripe session turned out to be cathartic. The strategic planning committee, led by Bill Peeper of the Orlando CVB and Mike Wilson, incoming chair of the IACVB board of directors and head of the Cincinnati CVB, may have been startled at the outpouring. But it gave the strategic planning committee just what it needed-members' input and a strong sense of direction. Wilson and Peeper should be commended for their courage-and vision-to present an open and safe forum for their members. More associations could learn from that example.

enter Karen Jordan, the new president and CeO of IACVB and a seasoned executive. She has her eyes wide open going into this job. "I don't think it's a secret to anyone that I'm walking into a political position at IACVB. I wouldn't have taken this job if it [IACVB] weren't in a ditch and I didn't feel that I could fix it, " she said just before the session. At least she now has the association's blueprint firmly in hand.