From a College Stint as Bellman to CEO: Cleo Battle’s Career Path

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

Cleo Battle

Cleo Battle speaks at an event in Louisville. In July, Battle will take over as president and CEO of Louisville Tourism after eight years as the bureau’s executive vice president and COO.

Convene recently spoke with Cleo Battle as he begins the transition to head up Louisville Tourism in July. Here are interview highlights.

Education and First Industry Job

Well, it’s a funny story — at least I think it’s a funny story. I was a track and field athlete at the University of Colorado, and quite frankly, I thought I was going to run in the Olympics someday or at least get to the Olympic trials. Along the way I got hurt, and I ended up transferring colleges. In the process … I [spoke] to a [college] counselor because, quite honestly, [my major] was undecided for way too long. She started talking to me about this new curriculum called hotel and restaurant management. I started taking classes and … I ended up getting a job at a hotel on the south side of Denver. I started out as bellman and I was just moving bags and making a lot in tips. I probably enjoyed it a little too much because at some point they wanted me to move from the bellman to the front desk — I was like, “Are you kidding? You know how much money I’m making?” [But] I ended up going to the front desk … and I would volunteer in the sales department for a couple hours, so I had a great opportunity to learn the hotel business.

A Change of Course

In Denver, I got hired into the management training program for Embassy Suites, where I was working at the time. I went to Phoenix and did my management training, and then I went to Los Angeles and Orange County as an assistant general manager, and then I went to upstate New York and became a director of sales. Then [I went] to Richmond and became a GM of a hotel and that’s when I decided to go back to school and get my master’s degree. I transitioned from hotels to working for the [CVB] in Richmond. I was at the bureau there for 17 years before I came to Louisville. [Battle has served as EVP then COO for Louisville Tourism for the last eight years.]

If I’m being honest, there were a couple of major [reasons why I moved from hotels to DMOs]. [When I was living in] Richmond, my brother passed serving in the first Gulf War, and I had young kids at the time. It was a real wake-up call for me. You heard all the cities I rattled off —when you’re young in the industry, you can bounce around when someone has a new opportunity for you, and that’s great for a while. But at some point, when you have a family, you really want to begin to settle into a place. So between the two of those things, I just decided that I was going to go back to school and get my master’s degree. The CVB in Richmond had an opening and they agreed to work with me with my school schedule. And that’s how that took off.

What I Love about Louisville

One of the first memories I have [after moving here], and one of the stories that I tell people is that, if I was at a Target or the post office or a service station, if I happened to mention to someone that I had just moved here, they’d say, “You’re going to really love living here.” And I thought to myself, is this like Candid Camera or something? [Laughs.] I just thought it was really odd.

The citizens here really love Louisville. They really enjoy the city and what the city is all about. They’re proud of the Bourbon and the development of the Bourbon industry here. They’re proud of the history of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. They’re proud of Muhammad Ali being from here. [There is] a lot of pride and culture in this community, and I think that, for starters, is what I like about living here.

On Louisville’s Past, Present, and Future

I’m very bullish on Louisville. We have seen a significant amount of development in the last five years, so we’ve got great assets. Like a good fighter, they’ve all been hit in the jaw a couple of times [by] COVID. We saw 19 million visitors in 2019 — our goal is to be at 25 million visitors by 2030. That was our goal prior to the pandemic, and it’s still our goal today. Louisville Tourism will begin to work on diversifying some of our funding models, we will begin to work closer with [some of our community’s] neighborhoods on development, and [to position them] to be more visitor friendly.

On DEI in the Industry and Supporting the Local Black Community

In 2020, Battle launched the Black Tourism Advisory Council (BTAC) and was one of seven Black DMO executives who spoke candidly about DEI in the industry in a video, “5 Questions About Race.” These are just two of several initiatives Battle has contributed his voice to in an effort help move the needle on diversity in the industry, both locally and nationally.

Last summer, when the world was reckoning with what was happening with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we first looked at ourselves. We [Louisville Tourism] decided to do a DEI audit of our organization to look at our hiring practices, our marketing — all of it — and got a really good report. As the leader of the industry here locally, the next thing we decided [to do is] offer a quarterly DEI training for our entire [local] industry. Last July, we ran our first program, and we had a little over 300 people who attended. [This was succeeded by programs held in October 2020 and March 2021.]

We are trying to take the lead to make sure the industry is inclusive, so when visitors come here, no matter what color [they are], we want to make sure everyone feels included. I, myself, can’t fix every issue that’s in our community, nor can my peers in other cities fix [every] issue in their communities, but what we can do is work within our own sector. How do we make our sector better? How do we make tourism better?

Has the Black community had an opportunity, from a business perspective, to take advantage of the 19 million people coming here? We created [The Black Tourism Advisory Council] so that we can ensure that we are connecting with the local Black business community, so that they can see how we’re marketing and communicating some of the Black events that are going on.

About 11 percent of our visitation is African American, and a couple of years ago, we said, “How do we grow that number?” We started working on the Unfiltered Truth Collection about a year- and-a-half ago. It has just blossomed into this great program. One of the stories that is part of [that collection] is that 13 of the first 15 jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby were African American — most people don’t know that. That’s part of what [the collection is], is telling these untold stories of the of the Bourbon industry, of the horse racing industry, of African Americans here in this community.

Everyone has to do their part to have an impact. I feel proud that from a tourism perspective, we are doing our part to bring diversity, to market diversity, to create diverse experiences, and I’m most proud of the fact that our museums and attractions have stepped up to tell these stories and to build out these experiences.

I’m trying to do my part in tourism. If we can get everyone to do their part, then I think you’ll look up and you’ll have a better Louisville.

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor of Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.