Hawai‘i Convention Center’s Teri Orton on Leadership and Overcoming Obstacles

The general manager points to Hawaiian values as a guide for getting her business through the most challenging moments — ‘the pandemic brought into focus the great importance of family, community, and visitors.’

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

Hawaiʻi Convention Center aerial

The Hawaiʻi Convention Center has a prime location within Honolulu’s Waikīkī resort area, just a short walk away from the destination’s famous beaches. (Cameron Brooks)

Before taking on the general manager role at Hawai‘i Convention Center in 2013, Teri Orton worked in a variety of hospitality roles throughout Hawai‘i. “I was born and raised in Hawaii by a family firmly rooted in the hospitality industry, like so many families here,” she said. “So, it was a natural choice for me to pursue this path, and I am happy today to have the opportunity to lead the state’s only convention center.”

Opportunities like these, however, are still few and far between for women: Although women make up 77 percent of the business event industry’s workforce, they only represent 21 percent of professionals in facility management (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Orton sees the path to encouraging more gender diversity in executive roles starting with the willingness of leaders to mentor young people coming into the industry.

“I was fortunate to have several women leaders to inspire me, but there is more work to be done to ensure that women are supported and elevated to key decision-making positions. Aspiring women hospitality leaders should seek out mentors who can help them avoid the same struggles and mistakes they encountered.”

We have become more flexible and adapted our meetings to fit hybrid models so our guests can have peace of mind during their planning process. Even so, we still firmly believe that gathering together is the best way to get business done.”

Teri Orton, general manager at Hawai‘i Convention Center

Can you share what the recent experience has been for your facility when it comes to attracting and keeping talent?

The center has always operated with a strong sense of ‘ohana (family), and our employees value that. We are constantly working on educating prospective employees about the many benefits of joining our team.

We have been working to build our staff levels back up as meetings and events continue again without restrictions. That means welcoming some of our former staff back, as well as searching for new talent. On our website [jobs.hawaiiconvention.com], we feature a new video that outlines the benefits of working at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. We also utilize our social-media accounts to get the word out about our open positions. Over the past few months, we have filled several key positions, including welcoming Hector Morales as our new executive chef last November.

My leadership not only recognizes the gaps but actively works to make change. An added bonus is that our city’s leadership feels the same way. For me, I have buy-in from all stakeholders and with leadership and support like this, women like myself can operate on an even playing field. I am very fortunate.

Do you continue to experience challenges from disruptions in the supply chain and the steady increase in inflation? Has it gotten better or worse in the last few weeks? Have you found any creative solutions that have helped offset that volatility?

Due to our unique location in Hawaii, we have always had to plan efficiently when it comes to supply-chain issues to ensure clients have everything they need, and we have built strong relationships with freight and shipping partners to create a seamless process. This often requires that we work months in advance of major events to handle special requests. Inflation has impacted costs for everyone, and we are working with clients to accommodate their budget.

The meetings and events industry has taken many twists and turns over the last two years. Can you talk a little bit about how you have weathered that personally and from a leadership perspective? Are there ways in which you find thinking differently as a result of the ongoing challenges to the meetings industry?

The Hawai‘i Convention Center has a strong set of Hawaiian values that guides us both in good times and in our most challenging days — many of which were during the COVID-19 pandemic. We never compromise those values to get somewhere or something. In Hawaii, our economy is heavily dependent on our visitor industry, which slowed considerably. The pandemic brought into focus the great importance of family, community, and visitors.

As a leader, I have had to adapt and lead a team through a period of unprecedented change, and this has created a new normal for many venues. We have become more flexible and adapted our meetings to fit hybrid models so our guests can have peace of mind during their planning process. Even so, we still firmly believe that gathering together is the best way to get business done, and we are happy to now be focused on working to safely welcome visitors back with our legendary aloha spirit.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given in your career journey? Worst?

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to stick to your values and stay true to who you are, morally and ethically. I’ve never compromised that to get somewhere or something. I believe in always doing what’s right and treating others with the utmost respect.

In contrast, I have also worked with leaders who have a “my way or the highway” style of management. Within my team, I believe in having strong leaders and managers in place within each department. Every person in our organization has something to contribute so it is important for me to ensure that they have the tools they need to shine. Whether it’s looking for training opportunities or being open to new trends, I try to keep an open mind (and open door) to any new ideas that they may have.

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene. This interview has been edited for brevity.

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Find more stories from Convene Senior Editor Jennifer N. Dienst’s continuing series on women leaders at convention centers.

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