CVB Leader: ‘Hang On, It Is Going to Be a Wild Ride’

As Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Tourism, prepares for retirement, she looks back on her career, what she has learned, and where the industry goes after COVID-19.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Karen Williams

Karen Williams (left), president and CEO of Louisville Tourism, celebrates the 2018 reopening of the Kentucky International Convention Center after an expansion and renovation. Williams said that project — completed on time and on budget — is one of the highlights of her career. (Courtesy of Louisville Tourism)

Karen Williams, CTA, plans to retire at the end of June after seven years as president and CEO of Louisville Tourism. It will be her second time retiring from the CVB. In August 2012, after 23 years as the organization’s executive vice president, she stepped down to pursue her own business. It wasn’t long before she was appointed to the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau Com- mission, the policy-making body of the CVB. By March 2014, she returned to the organization as president and CEO.

Williams answered Convene questions about her career and experiences working for a CVB via email.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the role of DMOs during your career?

We are now more hands-on with trade shows and conferences once they have booked. In addition to pre-promoting our city one year out, we assist with the normal city services such as registration and housing.

The client wants the destination to know they are invested in our city, so we assist with turnkey projects for the show to help the organization leave a lasting legacy in our community.

Examples include our work with the Kentucky Humane Society in the adoption of animals, purchasing and building bikes for kids of need, and planting trees and landscaping at schools and parks in underprivileged areas of the city.

Karen Williams

Karen Williams said she came to use her role as president and CEO of Louisville Tourism for the greater good.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the events industry during your career?

Oh, my goodness, there have been many — good and bad. However, it is difficult to reflect on my entire career when your mind immediately goes to the recent changes due to the pandemic we have all endured over the past 14 months. The tourism industry has been devastated — we were the first to go and most likely [will be] the last to come back. It is almost as if we are beginning our next new chapter in the hospitality industry. DMOs have always been competitive — now, we will all start on the same playing field, all trying to determine what “the new normal” is. Hang on, it is going to be a wild ride.

What changes forced by COVID-19 do you think will stick around in the events industry?

On a show floor, health and safety and sanitization [protocol] will be a new norm. Food and beverage presentation and how it is served will be more individualized to provide an extra level of safety. I think seating will be more creative in general sessions, giving people the feeling of [having] “their own space.” Touchless options are here to stay.

If you had to pick just one highlight over the course of your career, what would it be?

In 2018, we successfully reopened our new Kentucky International Convention Center on time and on budget [after an expansion and renovation] and added 2,000 hotel rooms in downtown Louisville. Our business increased 30 percent year over year.

What is the biggest lesson you learned over the course of your career?

To not let the title of president go to my head, but to use the platform for the good of our industry and our team. I learned to be involved and engaged in our community, stakeholders, key leaders, and politicians on an ongoing basis. And to quote from Ritz-Carlton Hotels, where I started my career, I always remember, “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.”

What was the biggest risk that paid off over the course of your career?

We closed our convention center downtown for two years for a renovation and expansion that enabled us to come in at budget and project on time. We had to convince our hoteliers and partners (hotels and attractions) we would fill the gap in business and find business being creative. We were successful; our budget remained flat for two years and flat during closure was a success for the team!

What was the biggest experiment that gave you a valuable insight, whether it worked or failed?

We rebranded our name to Louisville Tourism because we were more than a convention and visitors bureau. This at first made some of our partners nervous — would we not be the convention city that we always had been?

Now, eight years later, we are much more inclusive to all business and to all our industry partners, whether conventions, leisure, events, restaurants, attractions. And we’re promoting our great city as a destination!

What are your plans next? What are you most looking forward to?

Well, I plan to stay on the task at hand with helping our team get back to where we were financially by working with our state government to get some of the American Relief Plan dollars until I walk out the door at 7 p.m. June 30.

I will stay involved and engaged in this industry I love so much. But I am looking forward to taking a bit more time for me — health and wellness is my No. 1 priority, of course, and spending time with my dear husband and with my sweet boy, Rocky (the dog).

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.

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