Got Empathy? Visit Oakland’s New CEO on the Rewards of Listening to Employees

Listening is a critical leadership skill, says Visit Oakland’s new CEO, Peter Gamez, especially in challenging times.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Peter Gamez

“A lot of people are resigning from their jobs, because … they were being beat up during the shutdown, and they did not feel appreciated,” said Visit Oakland CEO Peter Gamez. “We need to go back and start telling our staff: ‘Thank you. I’m so sorry that we’re all going through this, but how can we be better?’”

When Convene talked to Peter Gamez, CEO of Visit Oakland, in August, he was in the middle of his second week on the job, fielding questions about his sales strategy and his marketing tactics. But Gamez had set a different priority for the first days of his new job — focusing on staff.

“My team has had a very difficult time during the shutdown, and we’re now trying to revitalize tourism and economic development,” Gamez told Convene. “I know that a lot of DMOs have also been beat up, but if we start listening to our employees and what their needs are, I really think that’s part of the recovery.”

“So many times, we focus directly first on the client,” he added. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t focus on clients, but we should focus internally first on our team, making sure that they’re motivated, that they feel appreciated. In return, they will provide the service for our clients.”


RELATED: How the Great Resignation is Impacting Business Events


Gamez has spent more than three decades in sales and executive positions at hotel companies, including 20 years with those founded by Chip Conley, who became known for building an employee-first culture and his two-word company mission statement, “Create joy.” That experience laid the foundation for Gamez’s orientation toward empathy and cultivating purpose, the CEO said.

Listening is a critical leadership skill, Gamez said, especially in challenging times. “Historically, empathetic leadership sometimes has been looked down upon in corporate America. I think the complete opposite — I think that we need to be empathetic and really listen and be aware of what our people have been going through.”

Oakland Lakeshore-DJI

Peter Gamez’s goal at Visit Oakland is to be considered one of the best DMOs to work for in the country, which he believes can be reached by focusing on employees.

Gamez added: “A lot of people are resigning from their jobs, because … they were being beat up during the shutdown, and they did not feel appreciated. We need to go back and start telling our staff: ‘Thank you. I’m so sorry that we’re all going through this, but how can we be better?’” And ask staff how their experience can help design the future, Gamez suggested. “What did [staff] learn during this shutdown?”

It’s the employees who are on the ground who often are the first to know about what innovations are out there, he said. “As we are slowly getting out of this shutdown, innovation is going to be key.

“I like to call it transformational leadership — sitting down with each employee and talking about how can we transform their current situation? We all have a higher calling. What is it? What is it going to be? And how can that higher calling be shared with our clients?”

Gamez’s goal is that Visit Oakland be considered one of the best DMOs to work for in the country, he said. “It’s a lofty goal, but it’s a goal that’s easily achievable if we focus on our employees and their needs. If we have a reputation as a great place to work in our industry, we will get top talent to start applying and work here,” Gamez said. “If employees know that they have a career path and that they have an opportunity to be appreciated in a company during a pandemic or during a shutdown, I’m going to get that top talent to apply. … And we want to make sure that we maintain that reputation.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.


Earn CMP Credit

Earn one clock hour of certification by visiting the Convene CMP Series page to answer questions about information contained in this article and others from the September/October 2021 CMP Series and cover story.