In April, Visit Sacramento’s CMO Sonya Bradley moved into a newly created role at the bureau — chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion — to deliver on the organization’s commitment to taking action and creating change around DEI. Convene recently spoke with Bradley, who has spent the majority of her 25-year career in the travel and tourism industry with Visit Sacramento, about this brand-new role. She is looking forward to her new focus, she said, giving her the opportunity to “leave a bit of legacy” in the destination and industry. Here are interview highlights.
Education and Introduction to the Industry
I got an internship because I was commuting from Oakland to San Jose for grad school, and I wanted a shorter commute. There was an internship with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau that was a 30-minute trip versus the hour-and-a-half to San Jose. So that literally was why I picked San Francisco. I had no clue what a convention and visitors bureau was. It was a communications internship — that’s all I needed to know. I’ve been in the industry ever since, always in the marketing and communication space. And because of those roles I [was] really working with all the departments — because you’re either doing the marketing for the sale, to help sales, or communication for the organization.
What She Loved Right Away About DMOs
You learn about the destination and it’s just never boring. And then you learn what a fam trip is — after that, you’re like, “This can’t be a job.” And then you go to a trade show and you’re talking to clients and listening to clients. And you notice that people in our industry have such a sense of pride in what they do, and commitment and passion for the job. I’ve got all that in me as well, and I just kept moving on and moving up and this is where I am today.
How the New Role Was Created
I think all of us kind of go back to that fateful day in May 2020 with George Floyd’s killing. I’ll just say prior to this, I was definitely aware of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it was not something that was talked about or done intentionally here. And certainly, I had conversations about things that we needed to change as far as representation — it was something that was talked about but was probably never really executed like it should have been. So then, May 2020 comes around and we all did some self-reflection on why things are the way they are and how things got to be the way they are.
I started internal DEI committees, talking to members of our team around some of the issues that were coming up. It certainly had a personal effect on me. I was in a really good industry and has made really good friends, but I knew there was a better way, a different way to be more diverse and more inclusive.
The California Travel Association asked me to chair their DEI committee in late summer. Talking to my peers and their counterparts up and down the state [and hearing the] stories some people of color, especially a lot of the younger folks, and what they were going through, really hit home with me. I kept hearing a lot of the same thing: I don’t see people who look like me. That’s something that has always stuck with me in this industry. There are not a lot of persons of color, particularly at higher levels.
I give credit to Mike Testa, our president and CEO — we had some really good, deep conversations around race and social justice and equity. In November, he came to me and said, “I’ve really been thinking about this. I want to establish a chief of diversity in our office, and I think you’re the person for the job. You have the contacts and you’ve been in the industry a long time.” He said he had the full backing of the board on this. “I want you to think about it,” he told me. “It’s yours to create.”
I gave it some thought. I talked to a lot of people, and did research on what people were doing in the space who were not in our industry — I even talked to the head of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the PGA of America.
I decided to take it on to have the chance to do something that I have a passion for and maybe even hopefully leave a little bit of legacy in terms of how we do representation here, not just for Visit Sacramento, but in California in the industry as a whole and make a little bit of a mark. I worked on a plan to put the position in place.
What I think is happening, at least with the folks that I’ve talked to from the California DMO world, is that they really are paying better and more attention to [diversity] issues, trying to be more representative of all different races and ethnicities and abilities. Some destinations are [showcasing] how they [provide] accessibility for people who have special needs as well.
I’d like to believe that we’re going to start to see this more and more. My concern has always been that this would be short-lived. Because that’s what we do, right? Everyone gets excited, but [then it] wanes a little bit. It’s important to stay on top of it. I think that’s a big part of my role is that we don’t ever forget.
What She Brings to ‘the Work We’re Doing’
I think what I bring to this position as someone who did not work in diversity, equity, and inclusion beforehand is my marketing and communication background, which I can integrate with the work we’re doing. I want to help bring in groups [to meet in Sacramento] that might be diverse, not just because of who I am, but because I help make connections in the community. I’ve made connections with organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or the Asian Chamber of Commerce. Once I make those connections and get to know the community, I can go after a group that might be based on race or ethnicity — and they want to know the makeup of our city. They want to know if there are people [like them] in places of power, or at least, civic officials. They want to know what the community is like. So being able to make that connection and being able to be authentic and show that we have representation in those communities is important.
I can give you an example of how this played out. A few months ago, we had a chance to go after a LGBTQ group interested in coming to Sacramento. We have an LGBTQ advisory group and I took the lead on pulling together this presentation. Of course, we talked about the hotels and the venue that they need but I was able to pull in people from this advisory committee to show the opportunities for this group to have fun and the places for them to go — and at the end of the day, just feel comfortable that we are LGBTQ-friendly.
I’ve been surprised at how many people have been so supportive of me taking on this role.
I want to bring in more businesses into the sort of tourism ecosystem. I want to be able to build out what I call the cultural tourism aspects of this as well. Once, as a visitor, you’ve done downtown, let’s go visit one of the ethnic neighborhoods here and have one of those really authentic meals that you can only get from either the mom-and-pop shop or a second-generation restaurant that’s here. And maybe there’s a museum that’s off the beaten trail, but it’s incredibly informational and awesome. So, that’s what I’m building towards.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.