Visit Seattle’s Tom Norwalk Looks Back and Ahead

Visit Seattle’s president and CEO spoke with Convene shortly after he announced his retirement about his early days in the hospitality industry, how he never thought he would want to work for a CVB, and what he is most looking forward to — in his home city and in his retirement.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Tom Norwalk

Visit Seattle president and CEO Tom Norwalk said he is planning more travel with his family when he retires in 2022. “That power of travel and the looking forward to being together and the memories that are created — it’s the richest thing that I think we will want to continue to do,” he said.

Earlier this month, Visit Seattle announced that its president and CEO, Tom Norwalk, will retire on March 31, 2022, after 15 years of service at the DMO. When Convene spoke with Norwalk shortly after the announcement, he reflected on the high points of his career and mused about how he’ll spend his free time come next spring.

As we were wrapping up our conversation, Norwalk enthusiastically listed all the ongoing projects in Seattle that he’s looking forward to seeing come to fruition. I noted that it seemed like it would be difficult for him to make a clean break. “It’s especially hard to stop something in an industry that you just really love,” he agreed. “And I think, yeah, I totally will figure out if there’s a way I can plug in that makes sense without getting back into a big, full-time job. I think it’s going to be fun to see what happens.”

Here are highlights of our interview.

As you look back on your career, what stands out to you?

I’ve been very lucky in that I’m coming full circle. I’m back in my hometown where I grew up and started my career here in the hotel business. I studied communications and advertising and came out of school and just jumped into a hotel sales position, which just was not even on my radar. Little did I know I would stay in the industry for these 45 years and move into different parts of it.

I spent most of my career here in Seattle, but also in San Francisco, Vancouver, B.C., and back to Seattle. My wife and I had children in every city where we worked, so that’s why I had to stop traveling (laughs).

I joined Visit Seattle with some great experience, certainly in competitive destinations and a strong hospitality background. I spent a few years before Visit Seattle in the destination management business. I never thought I would want to work for a CVB — I was a supporter of the work of CVBs, but not a big booster or champion because I felt we could do it better ourselves. And so I think for me to make that jump, to get here and see some of the changes that have started to take place, I’m just really proud that I could finish out my career here with an organization that really is looked at differently now.

We’re adding value every step of the way in the industry, and it’s a total change from what I might have envisioned even 20, 30 years ago.

Throughout my career, I have rarely worked for a man. From my early days in the hotel business through, all the way through, it’s predominantly women that have been the leaders running this industry. And I think we’re spoiled in Seattle with so many great women leaders. So that’s kind of prompted us to launch the SEAforSHE campaign and talk about that power and how women can thrive here.

What are you most proud of accomplishing at Visit Seattle in the last 15 years?

I think we’ve really tried to be even more committed to making a difference with one, our hotel community which are key stakeholders, and really trying to make sure that we’re delivering for them and more broadly for the city and the convention center in a way that we think is different than a lot of DMOs around the country. We’re aggressive, we’re measuring ourselves much like the hotel sales community measures itself. I’m really proud that we’ve been able to kind of make consistent and continual changes in what we do that we think will pay off in the long run.

I think our team gets a lot of credit for this — but so does the pandemic, in a sense — but now people understand the power and the value of travel, of tourism, of what a convention can do for a city. And when you take that all away, obviously as happened 19 months ago, well, we’ve been able to build on that. I think we’re going to come out of the pandemic as an organization eventually with even a bigger seat at the table than we would’ve had two years ago.

That seems to be the case in some cities, but not all.

Seattle is such an incredibly progressive West Coast city. That business is not always viewed in the same way it may be viewed in other markets around the country. So we’ve had to always fight hard. Funding has always been an issue, support from elected officials has always been an issue. And yet we just we keep doing it. We’re so proud of the city and we’ve changed how we market and really how we promote leisure tourism in some pretty drastic ways over the last 10 years. And so I think we’re going to come out of this with a lot more partners and probably stakeholders that are really even more on our side, to keep things moving.

What prompted you to announce your retirement?

It’s an incredibly fun industry. And that’s why I think it sometimes can be a problem — because people love it so much, they so enjoy the change and the craziness of the business, that they just don’t ever want to leave it.

The timing for me is good. Our city has so many major projects that have been under development or construction, out to 2023/24/25 — an entirely rebuilt waterfront, a new arena, Climate Pledge Arena, which is going to change music and a lot of things in this city. And our second convention center next year. Finally, an airport that’s going to grow and create a new international arrivals facility late this year. All these things that have been talked about and dreamed about and worked on, all are coming together.

I’m excited that my time has been incredible in the sense of being able to take advantage of this wonderful place to live and work. But it’s just going to get better for the next leader and the team going forward because the city’s changing a lot. I think we’re looking forward with tons of optimism on that.

I’ve always been one that hates to be predictable. I know a couple of my colleagues will say, “Why wouldn’t you wait until the new convention center is open to retire?” But that’s been a bit of a moving target and I thought the biggest mistake I could make would be to stay on until a specific date just because I want to be cutting a ribbon. So I just thought, nope, I’m going to do it, first quarter works for me. When you really look forward, you’ve just got to make the call.

What are your plans for retirement?

I think I have postponed really trying to think or to dream a lot about it. You get so wrapped up in what you’re doing and in working … and you’re raising children and then all of a sudden you turn around and now we’re helping raise grandchildren. It’s like it just rolls by.

I would say my wife is a little nervous with me having too much extra time on my hands, but we’ve always been just big believers in travel and family travel. Every couple of years we’ll do a family trip where grandchildren and our adult kids and spouses and/or significant others will travel somewhere, internationally or domestic. I guess it’s inherent in what we all do in the business, but that power of travel and the looking forward to being together and the memories that are created — it’s the richest thing that I think we will want to continue to do.

The other thing that we all think about certainly at this age is just staying healthy — you know, really being able to do some things you want to do when you want to do them. I don’t have a ton of hobbies because so much of my time and effort has been spent working in the business. But I’ve always been a runner and hiker so I’d like to do much more of that for as long as I can.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.