Convention Center VP Cheryl Swanson: ‘We All Need to Shout About This Exciting Field’

In this eighth installment of a continuing Convene series about female leadership at event facilities, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center’s Cheryl Swanson shares her thoughts on how the pandemic has given venues the opportunity to innovate.

Author: Jennifer Dienst       

A photo of Cheryl Swanson

“I encourage everyone in the events industry to mentor someone and serve as a role model no matter what position they currently fulfill. Everyone needs a cheerleader who will take that next step or open a door for them.” — Cheryl Swanson, CVE, vice president/general manager, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. (Photo courtesy of Kickstand Studio)

The business events industry, at large, is comprised of women — 77 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But some spaces are quite the opposite, particularly facility management, where just 21 percent are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We’re spotlighting women who have worked their way up to the top spots at convention centers around the world, and up next is Cheryl Swanson, CVE, vice president/general manager of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, South Carolina.

When it comes to leadership in the events industry, there is quite a bit of gender disparity, especially in facility management. Why do you think that is, and what needs to change in the industry to close that gap?

Historically, both the event and venue management industries have been male dominated, especially in leadership roles. While I can only offer my perspective, I assume this disparity originally (like most industries) stemmed from the traditional role of females in the family. Generally, women with children assume the primary caregiving role, affecting career decisions and paths. The event industry can be demanding with long hours, nights, and weekends. Those demands can tax even the strongest women in the work/life balance dance. But it can be accomplished, resulting in a very rewarding career.

I’ve observed intentional actions to support, advance, and celebrate women in the industry resulting in more women advancing to significant leadership roles. Although many higher education institutions are offering programs, there is not a universal awareness of the events industry as a career option. We all need to shout about this exciting field and share our successes to attract further interest.

Besides my role as vice president/general manager, I am also an adjunct faculty member at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. I interact with incredibly talented young women in my classes who may be our future leaders. I encourage everyone in the events industry to mentor someone and serve as a role model no matter what position they currently fulfill. Everyone needs a cheerleader who will take that next step or open a door for them.

My own success and path to leadership has resulted from two life directions. First, I am blessed with a strong family support system and husband that shared equally in all family responsibilities. Second, I constantly sought further education both formally through advanced degrees and informally in the events industry. I’ve been dedicated to volunteerism within our industry to gain knowledge and create lifelong connections with amazing individuals. My experience in the events industry has been so rewarding and fun that we have embraced it as a lifestyle, not a job.

Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has a central location in one of downtown Columbia’s most historic neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of Sean Rayford)

What is the biggest challenge convention facilities are facing right now? What do you see as your biggest opportunity?

The pandemic presented challenges that resulted in opportunities. The pandemic has allowed us to participate (albeit unplanned) in what I will refer to as the 4 R’s: Reflect, Reinvent, Recreate, and Reset. The challenges of the pandemic allowed us to reflect on our exposed weaknesses as we slowed down from the usual hectic pace. Identifying these vulnerabilities allowed us to reinvent and recreate policies and practices to improve our service delivery. We could then reset our expectations as an organization.

Many of these new practices will remain indefinitely as a marked improvement to meet client expectations. I believe the trend of hybrid meetings and technology dependency will continue to increase. The emphasis on sanitation, disinfection, and cleanliness is now a permanent practice affirmed by a GBAC accreditation. Investments in highly rated air filters will also continue permanently. Food-and-beverage services will minimize cash usage and continue best practices in service standards. All of these changes will benefit our industry and clients well into the future.

By nature, people want to be connected, have a desire to gather and a need to share. Events allow people to meet these basic needs. After the past two years, this need has only grown stronger and people are anxious to resume previous activity levels. The events industry continues to grow and strengthen and the women involved will grow as well!

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene.

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