At Detroit’s Huntington Place, 3 Women Execs Carve a New Path Forward

The convention center is the first in the U.S. with women serving in the highest executive roles.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

3 women posing

Lisa Canada (left), Karen Totaro (center), and Becky Bixby are the top executives overseeing Huntington Place, a convention center in Detroit.

In this special edition of our series highlighting female leaders at event facilities, we interviewed not one but three women in the top roles at Detroit’s Huntington Place — Karen Totaro, general manager; Becky Bixby, assistant general manager; and Lisa Canada, chairperson at Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority and political and legislative director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.

The power trio is not necessarily an anomaly for the center — currently more than half of the facility’s 35 managerial jobs (including supervisors, managers, and directors) are held by women. It is, however, an anomaly in the industry, where just 21 percent of all facility management positions in the country are held by women, according to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The center expects 2022 to bring a positive wave of business and the firming up of plans for a major expansion, which is expected to total $300-$500 million. This month, Automate took over the facility from June 6-9, and in September Huntington Place will once again host the North American International Auto Show. “Huntington Place is coming out of COVID faster than many convention centers across the country due our strategic mix of business and we see a strong return of business,” Totaro said.

Read on for more insight from the Huntington Place executive team on how they found success in this industry and how they’re solving the biggest challenges confronting business events right now.

Huntington Place in Detroit

Huntington Place ranks as the 16th-largest convention center in the U.S. with more than one million square feet in overall event space. Renamed in 2021, the facility is currently working on expansion plans that will add a new 60,000-square-foot ballroom and a 750-room headquarters hotel.

In addition to your skills and capabilities, to what would you attribute your success in a male-dominated sector of the business events industry? What attracted you to this side of the business?

Totaro: I worked my way through college as a supervisor for catering and concessions at my university’s arena. It was love at first event. The adrenaline and energy in a space right before a show begins is palatable. I was sold! What helped me adapt in such a male-dominated field was having a sense of humor, being vocal at the table, asking lots of questions, and always volunteering even for the less desirable jobs.

Bixby: I was an intern at an arena in college and knew right away that I didn’t want to do anything else for the rest of my career. Almost 30 years later, I’ve worked events from all angles — being in a building, a show organizer, and a general service contractor. I believe my adaptability and a desire to never stop learning have made me successful. I truly want to understand every facet of this business and am eager to jump in wherever needed to learn a new skillset.

Canada: I have worked in politics and the construction business for almost 30 years. I am no stranger to a male-dominated work environment. It was always a goal of mine as a girl to do my part to push the limits of feminine success, and as I enter the last part of my career I feel pretty good about the small ways I may have helped to open doors to more women in the future.

Now that groups are coming back, what’s different? For example, are you noticing that groups are using the space differently than pre-pandemic? Are groups offering different programming (maybe fewer sessions and more white space). Or are there other kinds of attendee behavior that stand out to you?

Totaro: As an industry there is a definite delay in receiving information as everyone is short on staff from the client side and the venue side. There is, however, a greater appreciation for staying flexible, resourceful, and creative in finding solutions. The biggest change I see is for events that have been doing hybrid meetings as they are finding a new revenue stream primed for growth. While a senior person may travel to an event, the mid-level staff that stay back can now participate via their computers. Shows are seeing a new demand from this mid-level group that had not been as exposed to conventions or educational opportunities in the past. That to me is very exciting!

Bixby: It has been wonderful to see people coming back to events. Everyone is hungry for that face-to-face connection. Two things are different: one is digital programming is not going away. Show organizers have realized that now there is a whole new audience to tap into by involving people who cannot physically be at the event. Second, it’s becoming more about flexibility. As we get back into event planning, there are a lot of last-minute ideas and requests than ever before. Being able to adapt and respond quickly to the needs of our clients is what is making us successful.

How are you accommodating groups with hybrid programs? Can you share any changes or investments you’ve made in new technology to meet this need?

Totaro: We have worked with our preferred in-house AV provider, Premier AV. They do an outstanding job of working with shows to do virtual events, hybrid events, or simply create an on-site broadcast studio in their event space. The fiber network that runs throughout Huntington Place creates many options for customers, and the robust, free Wi-Fi connects attendees to these services. The key is to listen to what the client needs and remain flexible and solution-focused. Since hybrids came on so fast during COVID, a lot of time is spent simply educating clients on what the capabilities are with technology.

Bixby: We welcome groups that want to make their programs hybrid. Tapping into digital more so you’re expanding the network of reach with the content of your show is going to stay strong into the future. We’ve done a lot with our technology to keep up with the latest and pride ourselves on being able to accommodate a wide range of needs.

Canada: We made a significant investment in our technology, including that which supports hybrid gatherings just prior to the pandemic. This is fortuitous, since it has allowed us to hit the ground running as people return.

How are you navigating the rise in costs and working with clients who have a stricter budget (especially F&B)?

Totaro: Costs have risen for everyone so we are diligent about helping our clients stay on budget, offering alternative options or assisting in prioritizing where dollars should be spent to get the most bang for their buck. Staffing costs have risen to be sure as have supply-chain costs. We are so glad we are a LEED Gold venue, which helps us conserve energy, water, and keep our waste stream levels low. In catering, we do our best to have offerings at every price point. Sodexo Live!, our catering partner, does an outstanding job of treating each client as the individual event they are and basing their menu and pricing on needs and budget. Our digital signage encourages events to develop sponsorships and alternate revenue streams.

Bixby: The rise in costs is a definite concern and we’re addressing them to the best of our abilities by effectively listening to our clients’ needs and budget parameters. It’s a balancing act to see where we can give and take in some areas but not able to as much in others. Luckily, we have a strong partnership with our food and beverage provider, Sodexo Live! in that we proactively approach our clients with the same aligned goal in customer satisfaction.

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene.

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