In a Career of Firsts, Yet Another for Events Industry Pioneer Carol Wallace

Carol Wallace, recipient of the inaugural PCMA Groundbreakers Award, talks about her 35-year career that included 24 years as president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Carol Wallace

Within a few years of leaving her position as president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, Carol Wallace was named CEO of San Diego Theatres Inc. “That was 2018. So I failed retirement,” she said.

Editor’s note: The PCMA Groundbreakers Award is a new initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity. Conceived by PCMA’s Black Lives Matter Working Group, the award helps to create a living history of pioneers in the business events industry. The 2021 inaugural award honors Carol Wallace, an individual who made a difference for the business events community, paving a way for a more diverse and inclusive future.

Carol Wallace has enjoyed a successful, 35-year career helming major convention centers and has a long and impressive list of accomplishments, volunteer leadership positions, and industry awards to match — with her latest recognition being named the inaugural PCMA Groundbreaker. It seems the only thing she’s failed at is retirement, which she was supposed to embark on in 2014, when she announced she would be leaving her position after 24 years as president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation.

She then launched Carol Wallace & Associates, offering consulting services for the venue management industry — the San Diego Convention Center was her first client. A few years later, she was tapped to lead San Diego Theatres Inc. — a nonprofit public benefit corporation that runs the San Diego Civic Theatre and the historic Balboa Theatre — where she has served as CEO since 2018.

I asked Wallace to take us along her career path. We were more than three-quarters of the way through our hour-long conversation before I had to prompt her to share any challenges she had experienced as a Black woman — a double minority in the C-suite of convention centers. It’s obviously part of her nature to focus on acknowledging the people who had supported and mentored her — and in turn, those she had mentored — than in highlighting obstacles she had encountered along the way.

She found the PCMA honor “humbling” and attributed her successes to being the result of “a team effort. It’s not just me. It’s all of those people who I’ve worked with. Together, we all make it happen.”

Here are highlights of our conversation.

Carol Wallace

“I think we’re just going to fly higher as an industry. I really do,” said Carol Wallace, recipient of the first PCMA Groundbreakers Award.

How She Got Her Start

In 1973, Wallace became the head of PR and fundraising for the Ohio Lung Association — the first person of color who had been hired throughout the statewide organization, she said — replacing a longtime newspaper man who had been there for 30 years. “He had thrown away all the files before I started,” Wallace said.

“At that time, the American Lung Association had 16 branch offices and I had a chance to travel around the state. By him throwing away the files of an organization that was over 100 years old and coming as a young person, I had the opportunity to do some very creative things. The goal was to diversify the fund-raising efforts beyond the Christmas Seal Campaign, and I believe we had a 25-percent increase in donations that year.”

As a result of her success, the American Lung Association asked her to attend the national conference in Dallas to talk about the statewide campaign. “When I left Ohio, it was 30 degrees, there was snow on the ground,” Wallace said. “And when I arrived in Dallas, and it was 80 degrees. I thought, ‘Oh, I could like this.’”

Wallace said the warmer climate spurred her to look for a job in Dallas and after a year, she was hired by the City of Dallas. To get to City Hall, she would park across the street at the convention center and cut through its lobby every day. “I noticed, every four or five days, the carpeting changed, the drapes changed, there were different groups occupying the building,” Wallace said. She was intrigued, and when she saw a job opening at the center, she applied — undeterred by colleagues who warned her, she said, that “If you go over there, you will never come back to City Hall — people go over there and their careers just die.”

Wallace interviewed with Frank Poe, then the general manager at the Dallas Convention Center (now the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas), and Jerry Barshop, then director of convention and event services, and got the job. “Having two men like that who first brought me in as the first person of color in the administrative office, not in housekeeping, at the Dallas Convention Center,” Wallace said, “and then supporting me and mentoring me through the industry, I have to say, was a blessing.”

On Being Mentored

Wallace said she quickly fell in love with the industry, and Poe and Barshop “helped to groom me, guided my career, involved me in so many things and gave me opportunities that you wouldn’t normally have at that time as a person of color or as a female — made sure that I was involved in working with the convention and visitors bureau, that I had a chance to meet with clients, and trusted me to be responsible as the account manager for shows, big shows.”

Wallace met and married her husband, a native Texan, in Dallas, and she spent 10 years at the center — “I had planned to be there, actually, my whole career,” she said. And then in 1988, one of her big clients, Sylvia Rottman from the Association for Operating Room Nurses, reached out to her to let her know that a convention center was being built in Denver, and Rottman had told the head of the center, Tom Mobley, that he should come and hire her and “steal” her away from Dallas. “I called Tom,” Wallace recalled, “and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we just broke ground. We’re not looking to hire people for a couple years, but yeah, send me your resume and I’ll keep it on file.’”

From Dallas to Denver

A short time later, Wallace was at an industry meeting, and during a coffee break while standing in line, she asked the person next to her if he could pass the cream. It was Mobley. The two got to talking about floor plans. When he learned that she was going to be in Colorado Springs for another industry meeting in the near future, he asked if he could take her to convention center construction site.

Once there, there was another guy who met with her, too — who turned out to be Mobley’s boss. Mobley told her: “We both think we should hire you right now, and not wait two years,” Wallace said. “So I had gone to Colorado for a conference sponsored by Dallas, and had to go back and tell Frank and Jerry, ‘I have a job offer.’” And she had to convince her husband and their two children to pull up roots.

“I had been planning my career to go up through the ranks at Dallas, and Jerry was going to retire, and Frank was going to get Jerry’s job, and I was going to be the general manager of the convention center, and then I left. I’m thinking, ‘Two years, we’ll come back.’

“So we went to Colorado and I worked under Tom. Again, another person who mentored me, provided tremendous opportunity for growth, development, gave me free reign. We took over the building of the new convention center, and I was the first female and person of color to take on a major convention center and be the construction lead. In addition to taking on the construction with Tom, we also took over the older convention center, Currigan Exhibition Hall. And Tom’s department was all of the convention center, the theaters, as well as the arenas, so he had a big department. But he was generous with his time, his training, giving me all kinds of opportunities.

“That was a good growth opportunity then to be totally in charge and at the top, and to lead a team of great people. And I’ll have to say too, going back to Dallas when I started, there was so many people who wanted me to succeed and not fail, and went out of their way to make sure that happened.”

Wallace reminisced about one example of that kind of supportive culture at the Dallas Convention Center early in her career. When she was walking the exhibit hall during a show, she was asked by an exhibitor if someone from the center could clean out the trash in their booth. She paged staffer Eugene Jones, who came with a crew and cleaned it all up.

“Later on that day,” she said, Jones told her, “‘Let me give you a hint.’ He said, ‘It wasn’t our trash to clean up. The decorators should handle that, but I didn’t want to embarrass you, so we went ahead and cleaned it anyway.’”

It’s clear, decades later, that the incident made its mark on Wallace, who choked up while recounting it. “That was a sign of the kind of support that I had throughout the organization. It makes me emotional. That demonstrates not only the staff, but the leadership, the CVB both in Dallas, and in Denver who really embraced me, supported me. We worked as a team, and that continued throughout my career.”

To Warmer Climes

Once the Colorado Convention Center opened, Wallace was “just beginning conversations” with Poe about returning to Dallas when a headhunter reached out to her about an opportunity at the brand-new San Diego Convention Center. “I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We’re happy here.’ I didn’t want to say I was going back to Dallas.” The headhunter continued to pursue her, saying, “‘I have to tell you, San Diego wants you to come and be interviewed there.’ At home, the conversation had been, ‘We’ll go to Denver for a couple years, then we go back to Dallas.’ So I said to my husband and children, ‘What do you think about San Diego?’”

Her husband, a golfer, was enthusiastic about the move. “The rest is history,” Wallace said. “We went through the process and we moved to San Diego and I started work at the center in December of 1991. Reint Reinders and I both started on the same day — I was the head of the convention center corporation, and he was the head of the CVB. We decided we’re going to partner together. San Diego was new on the map, everybody thought of San Diego in 1989 as a Navy town, and our two organizations, we were going to build a reputation for San Diego. It has been just a labor of love. Reint went on to retire, and then David Peckinpaugh came in, and was just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I think the world of the whole team that worked there and continue to work for the convention center.”

destinations

Under Carol Wallace’s leadership, the San Diego Convention Center Corporation became the first to move its sales team into the convention center.

Remaking a City

“San Diego was kind of like a big small town. So now all of a sudden you have a big convention center, you have big hotels, and we’re playing with the big guys,” Wallace said. “And so it was fun for all of us to begin to do the work, build the reputation, and see it develop. We have had just such great clients who trusted us when we were opening and we were too small and they tried to fit into the building anyway because they love San Diego; a mayor who really supported the industry; and hotels — Marriott, the Hyatt, and then later on, the Hilton, the Omni.”

Convention centers have typically been loss leaders for cities, Wallace said, and in San Diego, “it wasn’t the city, but the port that paid cash for the convention center, and the city had no money. So they said, ‘You need to make your own money because we don’t have any.’ We sat down with the hotel community to say, ‘How can we make this work?’ And it became, ‘We built this as a win-win for everybody, and we’re not looking for anybody to be a loss leader.’

“We were the first center to talk about white-glove catering service, guest services with people in uniforms, outstanding customer service at a great venue, and it was a time when people appreciated it, and they still do now. I know we led the industry in those things.”

When Wallace took over the building, it was 18 months old and “there was the need to start planning for the next expansion, and getting into the market,” she said. “We were the first ones, I know, to create a customer advisory board, and that’s something that helped us through all of this. Our customer advisory board [CAB] was put in place in 1996 — we knew hotels were doing this but there weren’t any convention centers. And that helped us tremendously because we were able to talk to clients in a confidential, let-your-hair-down, open session and have them really tell us what they’re looking for, what they like, what they don’t like, where we could improve. And they come into your city and they see a big picture. We had the CAB for 10 years and they led us through some very difficult times. My hats off to those meeting planners who served and gave their time to help make San Diego the great destination that it is.

“Our biggest innovation was the idea to move the convention center sales team into the convention center to have them work closer to the client and streamline the sales process. That idea shook up the industry, but we used to have monthly meetings of the GMs, both of the headquarter hotel GMs, myself and the head of the CVB, Reint and then David, and we had quarterly NETMA — nobody ever tells me anything — meetings for all the hotel partners in the block. It was huge city-wide collaboration and everybody, again, was just working together for a common goal of making sure our clients had the best meeting ever here in San Diego. The results today speak for this tremendous collaboration.”

Unconditional Support

When asked about challenges she faced as a Black woman in a white male-dominated industry, Wallace admitted that “there were challenges, a number of challenges.” As “one of the first people of color in the office” at the Dallas Convention Center, she said, “there were, I have to say, some clients who did not want me as their contact person but again, I had the full support of Frank and Jerry.”

And those people who didn’t want to work with her, she said, “they looked to the leadership to see, ‘Well, what are they going to do?’ I’m talking about being early in an industry that did not have diversity and people didn’t mind saying they didn’t want a diverse person on their team. They looked at leadership to support that and leadership said, ‘No, this is what we value — these are our values.’ And that died away very quickly.

“There were situations, and you see that in all cities. There are some things that naturally go with the top job that did not come my way, they just did not. But on the other side, like I said, more times than not, from the mayor to the head of our CVB, in San Diego, Denver, and Dallas, they demonstrated their strong support and just stood their ground.”

Not that there weren’t incidents that “hurt my feelings,” Wallace said. “In one city, I had gone to an off-site meeting where they validated your parking. I’m at the meeting representing the convention center among other tourism officials. I left the meeting to head back to the parking lot when I realized I had forgotten to get my validation sticker. I went back to the boardroom to get my validation, and I overheard a key person saying about me, ‘Her job is just to keep the convention center clean.’

“Yes, I was offended, so intentionally or not, I began to distance myself from this group. A wise lady who was the grand dame of the San Diego hotel community noticed. There was a retreat scheduled of this group and I decided to skip it. This wise lady called me at home (no cell phones then) and gave me the kind of talking to my mother would have given me and told me why I needed to be in the room. Needless to say, I went to the retreat and never looked back.

“She has since passed away, but she was the second-most important person who quietly mentored me in San Diego. The first-most important mentor to me is an attorney, Patricia McQuater. She’s the Michelle Obama of San Diego. I was blessed to have had her as my first Board Chair at the San Diego Convention Center Corporation and her sage advice guided me through any tough situations. She continues to guide me.

“You understand, you see where people are coming from, but then you go on. And you don’t let that discourage you because you do have strong support and you know that you can’t change people’s attitudes. There were some people whose attitudes did change, who may not have wanted me first as the person they worked with, but when we started working together, they’d come to me and say, ‘I have to admit that at first I didn’t want you as my account person and I want to apologize for that — but now I’m so glad you are.’ And I appreciated that. You just keep going and you can’t be deterred by what somebody else’s hang-ups are. You can’t.”

Strong Roots

When asked where that kind of resolve came from, Wallace credits her mother. “She valued education,” she said. “She didn’t finish high school but she went back after she had her children. She started out as a housekeeper and then went back to school to finish her degree and ended up working in the accounting department, for what is now CitiBank.

“I grew up when there was segregation, so schools did not integrate until 1954. But you could put your children in whatever school you wanted that would accept people of color. And so, she moved us out of district to different schools and just said, ‘This is where you need to be because you need to know how to fend for yourself in these environments.’

“And so early on, you look at my kindergarten picture when I was six years old, and I was in a multicultural class. My mother made sure we had opportunities that would benefit us. When they created the first Upward Bound program in Ohio to give kids an opportunity to spend a summer on a college campus, they were only choosing a 100 people from across the state. My mother made sure I was one of those people.

“Because she grew up in the South and moved to Cincinnati, she wanted to make sure her children learned how to cope, and I don’t want to say to ‘do battle’ — that’s not the right term — but to be resilient to survive in a culture that was not African-American. We were taught that from an early age. Because of her foresight and how she struggled, she said, ‘I want to make sure my children and I can look back on our careers and our lives and see how we were resilient and to pass it on to others, people who I’ve worked with and mentored with, and my own children, grandchildren.’ A lot of what we need to do is pay it forward.”

Wallace names several women and men she is proud to have supported to help them rise in their careers in the business events industry. She said she is especially proud of mentoring Joyce Watson Leveston, who was working part time at the San Diego Convention Center when Wallace met her and is now senior VP of convention centers at Spectra. “As we’ve kept in touch over the years,” Wallace said, “we’ve talked as she’s made career moves about how she’s giving back and what she’s doing. The environment has opened up so much more for people of color and women. And she has mentored so many, paying it forward.”

A Second Passion

When she came to San Diego, city officials noticed that Wallace had experience handling city theaters as part of her convention center responsibilities and asked her to “take on the older center that included the theater,” and later the historic Balboa Theater. “I talked with the board about creating San Diego theaters as a subsidiary corporation of the convention center corporation to help get them started,” Wallace said, “have them run the two theaters, prop them up, and then spin them off” to be independent, which happened in 2003.

When the CEO of San Diego Theatres Inc. retired in 2014, “they hired somebody who stayed 18 months and left and then they were without a CEO,” she said. At this point, Wallace had started her consulting firm and was asked to step in as an interim CEO. “I went over and within three months they said, ‘Would you just stay and be the CEO?’ That was 2018. So I failed retirement,” she said with a laugh.

“It is wonderful coming back because we have people who have been here 30, 40, 50 years, so I’m coming back to the same crew of people that I worked with from 1993, when they first came under the corporation and a lot of the same clients — so it’s kind of coming home. I love theater. To be able to stand in the lobby when the symphony is rehearsing on stage or hear the singers from the Broadway shows and sit in the balcony and watch the rehearsal is just heaven. But we’re all in hiatus now, we’re all in intermission, waiting for COVID to end.”

How the Event Industry Will Change

When asked how she thinks the pandemic will make its mark on the business events industry, Wallace said, “The world has changed I think people still value in-person meetings, but I think also, the way technology has been advancing, we’re going to see all these enhancements and hybrids. We were forced to do it, and now that we’re doing it, we’re getting more comfortable with it — I think we’re going to see that as a significant change.

“We’re talking about how soon people will want to sit next to each other for an event — I mean, side-by-side in the theater. I think this consciousness about health is something we’re going to live with — just like we’ve gotten used to going through the airport with having your ID ready, and making sure liquids are in a three-ounce bottle. I think we’ll have the same things in our industry going forward about cleanliness and sanitation.

“So yes, the world is turned upside down, but I think we’re going to be better. One of my favorite songs from ‘Wicked’ is ‘Defying Gravity.’ I think we’re just going to fly higher as an industry. I really do. Art reflects life — I now see things through the theatrical lens. The pandemic has forced the world to embrace technology and I believe our industry is going to skyrocket, with PCMA leading the way.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.