After 10 years at Visit San Antonio, where she was executive director for six years before becoming president and CEO in 2017, Casandra Matej is taking the reins at Visit Orlando. Convene caught up with her just ahead of her big move and got her take on everything from the future of face-to-face meetings, to the perks of relocating to The City Beautiful, and how she sees DMOs evolving after the year that changed everything.
How do you think the role of the DMO is changing, especially in light of the events of 2020?
No matter what destination you are, the majority of the industry is really small businesses, right? So, first and foremost, I think bureaus had to take a step back and say, how can we help these businesses so that they survive, so that when there is recovery, there are restaurants and attractions for people to enjoy. What that did is propel DMOs into a different role, of being more and more involved in unifying the community and setting up programs to help those small businesses.
Where DMOs have been primarily outward facing — bringing people to the destination and creating an economic impact for the community — in a much bigger way, DMOs have had to to engage with true community efforts because we’ve got to make sure that those businesses thrive.
Speaking from my experience in San Antonio, [in 2020] we started working with the food banks and trying to do different types of fundraisers [for them] that would also draw business to our hotels. For example, if you did a staycation [at a local San Antonio hotel], a percentage of your stay would go to a San Antonio food bank.
For meeting planners, we’re [now] not only the liaison for attractions, hotels, restaurants, what you would call traditional partners — but now we’re the liaison for health-care [providers] locally, what venues are open, and what are the ordinances and regulations? The value proposition of DMOs has definitely been enhanced because we are that central [source] for that information.
Orlando has changed and grown a lot over the past decade. How do you see it, as both a leisure and meetings destination, continuing to evolve and change over the next few years?
There’s a commitment from all the attractions, whether it’s Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld, to reinvest in their product to make people’s experience even better.
I think it’s educating [visitors] on some of the hidden gems — people forget just how many golf courses there are and all of the outdoor experiences. One thing I was blown away by are the number of lakes in Orlando and walking trails.
I really appreciate [Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings] — he has a vision of making Orlando and Orange County an innovation epicenter. Think about all of the creative intelligence here — that is something that I’m excited to be a part of. I think [Orlando] can be a prototype, if you will, of the future of our industry. Orlando is where imagination can come to life, right? If you can imagine it, let’s bring it to life. And that, to me, is exciting when I’m talking to meeting professionals.
What benchmarks are you looking for that would signal a positive recovery?
The thing that keeps me up at night is that we’re still in the midst of it, but I will tell you what I look at — are we seeing people on airplanes? Are [Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld] seeing some incremental growth? Are we seeing the cancellations of groups subsiding? Because the reality is, all over the country, there are still groups that are having to make the hard decision for 2021.
People are looking for and seeking solutions … and I think Orlando is the poster child of conducting safe events. They were one of the first destinations to host major events — everybody was watching the NBA finals that took place this past summer.
I know a lot of DMOs are taking the lead [and collaborating] with non-industry organizations to make sure that they’re known as a safe destination. We [in Orlando] have the best safety protocols in place … and I don’t think this is a trend that will go away. I think the role of the DMO is to [help planners] navigate what those [protocols] are, and I’m a firm believer that everybody needs to understand that this is a shared responsibility. We can do what we need to do in Orlando — at our venues, at our attractions, at our hotels — but it’s also a shared responsibility of the organizer as well as the attendees.
What are your thoughts on the future of face-to-face meetings? Will virtual options replace them?
While I think [virtual meeting technology] is going to enhance and grow association meetings, the in-person meeting is never going away. [But] I think there’s a role for DMOs, convention centers, and hotels regarding hybrid meetings — [they’re] all going to have to be experts in that area, along with like companies like Encore and Freeman.
What excites you about working and living in Orlando? Is there something specific that drew you to this destination?
Whether it’s hotels, attractions … you see the best of the best want to go to Orlando. To be able to work side by side with attractions such as Disney and Universal and SeaWorld, all in one destination, really excited me.
I also will tell you that I love challenges. Of course, we are in the midst of a pandemic — and I believe Orlando is so important to the entire country and the travel industry at large, that it has to recover. It’s going to be a destination that everybody watches. And so, to be part of that and help build a legacy to get back not only to pre-pandemic numbers, but also to grow [those numbers] and work with that community, that to me was so exciting.
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor of Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.