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Meet the Women Behind Visit Seattle’s C-Suite

Tammy Blount-Canavan, Kelly Saling and Ali Daniels, Visit Seattle

It’s a well-known fact that the meetings and events industry is dominated by women.

Ask any meeting or event planner you know and they’re likely to mention how 80% of the industry is female. What they’re less likely to mention, though, is how drastically that number shifts when looking at C-suite level positions, of which men hold 80%.

The number may seem shocking, but when you compare it to what it was in the past, Tammy Blount-Canavan, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, says there’s been an improvement.  

“The stats are significantly better than they were even five years ago,” said Blount-Canavan, one woman who is a part of the 20% of females in the industry’s C-suite positions. “I think that this has always been a woman-dominated industry for various reasons, and we are finally seeing some changes in that. But it's not a change that's going to happen overnight.”

It’s a change that has been happening over time for decades, and one that Blount-Canavan herself has been actively involved in since starting her career in meetings and events with Tourism Vancouver (now Destination Vancouver) in 1989. Throughout her 30-plus-year career, Blount-Canavan has seen women empowerment go from “something that is poo pooed to something that is celebrated broadly,” and her efforts and accomplishments have helped make that a reality for the industry.

She’s responsible for founding Smart Women Who Get Shit Done (SWWGSD), which started in the early 2000s as a group of women supporting one another and talking about how to progress gender equality in the industry. She became the fifth female chairperson of Destinations International (DI) in 2017, and on May 9, 2022, Blount-Canavan became the first female president and CEO of Visit Seattle, a DMO that is captained by women and consistently celebrates their leadership.  

“How do I feel about being a part of it? Awesome, really proud about that!” Blount-Canavan said. “In the DMO space in particular, five years ago, this city, Orlando, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, all had male CEOs. Those are now all helmed by women. I think that it's been a long time coming, but we've seen a really great breakthrough.”

[Related: A Multi-Generational Look at Women’s Leadership Journeys in the Meetings and Events Industry]

The Women of Visit Seattle’s C-Suite

Visit Seattle is one DMO leading the charge.

Blount-Canavan made Visit Seattle history when she became the DMO’s first female president and CEO in 2022, and Visit Seattle continues to pull more chairs up for women at its C-suite table.

Tammy Blount-Canavan, President and CEO, Visit Seattle
Tammy Blount-Canavan, President and CEO, Visit Seattle

Alongside Blount-Canavan sits Kelly Saling, SVP and chief sales officer at Visit Seattle, and until recently, the two were joined by Ali Daniels, the DMO’s former SVP and chief marketing officer, who decided to take advantage of an exciting new career opportunity late last month. (Visit Seattle has contracted SearchWide Global to fill Daniels’ former position.)

Visit Seattle’s C-suite continues to amplify female voices not only to empower them within the DMO’s walls, but also to show the rest of the industry what it looks like to let women lead, and to prove to other women in the industry that it’s possible for them to reach the top, too.

“It’s absolutely true that representation matters,” Saling said. “When you see someone do it, you give yourself permission to dream a little bit…It’s a privilege to be in a position of leadership. We need to recognize the importance of having leadership representation that mirrors the community. Women shouldn’t feel as though they can’t advance.”

That mentality of women lifting other women up hasn’t always been one that’s common to see in the meetings and events industry until recent years, and it’s a mentality that remains a bit of a struggle. While there are more women in leadership positions willing to help other women reach the top, there still exists a sense of competition and the belief that there may not be enough space for everyone to get there.

“At the beginning of my career, there was room for one woman. It used to be, ‘It’s either you or someone else.’ So, it was more competition to destroy than competition to uplift. Either you get it, or I get it. Somebody loses,” Daniels said. “And now, that’s shifted massively to women uplifting women...I am excited for when I don’t have to speak on a panel of ‘women in business’ and it’s just ‘leaders in business.’ You’re a good leader, not a good ‘female leader.’ It puts a disclaimer on it. It’s frustrating and it’s painful. I think we’re making progress, but not quick enough.”

Kelly Saling, SVP and Chief Sales Officer, Visit Seattle
Kelly Saling, SVP and Chief Sales Officer, Visit Seattle

It's also important to note that while progress is being made, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ride to the top is an easy one. The opportunities for women to earn titles that have traditionally been given to men are more abundant, but they aren’t handed to women on silver platters, and women certainly aren’t given clear directions on how to get there.

“Regarding how I got to this position, there’s a part of it where you’re white knuckling it. You’re just hanging on and seeing where this ride goes,” Saling said. “That’s certainly met with opportunity, but also grit. I’m a very strategic thinker, but sometimes the strategy is grit and white knuckling it…Along those lines, you keep working hard, and you keep your nose to the grindstone.

“Certainly, there are other obligations that many women have which they might feel prevents them from advancing,” Saling added. “There’s the ‘you can’t have it all’ quote, which is garbage. I had a cousin tell me, ‘It’s not that you can’t have it all. It’s that you might not be able to have it all at the same time.’ And that’s the dance, two steps forward, one step sideways, figure it out. But women are incredible at figuring things out.”

Which is one of the reasons why Daniels believes they are continuing to infiltrate all levels of the industry.  

“There’s scientific evidence that female and male brains are very different. I think female brains are more conditioned to handle the atmosphere that events create. So that’s why we’re here fighting the good fight,” Daniels said. “I have fought for this position. This was not handed to me...but I am excited to be part of that 20%. I feel there’s a big responsibility with that. I want to pave the way so that it’s easier for everyone else. It’s not easy being in that 20%. It requires thick skin.”  

Thick skin, as well as integrity and patience, Saling added.

Ali Daniels, Former SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Visit Seattle
Ali Daniels, Former SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Visit Seattle

“You have to do the right thing, regardless. You have to play the long game. You can’t make decisions that are just easy today when it’s not the right thing to do. Integrity matters. It's a small world and a small industry, so your choices matter,” Saling said. “There are no shortcuts to hard work and making the right decision.”

It also pays off to be brave, Blount-Canavan said. The biggest challenges women face are often perpetuated myths, perceptions and insecurities, or microaggressions. They’re not necessarily intentional, she said, but they’re still there, and a big step toward achieving equality is having the courage to unlearn what you think you know.

“That goes for non-women and women. It goes for everybody. We have to unlearn our insecurities. We have to figure out how to find our voice more quickly and more assuredly,” Blount-Canavan said. “One of the things I've learned is that courage is necessary, respected and embraced. Boldness and different ideas are really, really important.”

Having other women alongside you on that journey of unlearning can be one of the most helpful things of all, and reaching the top together is often the biggest reward.

“It’s beautiful,” Daniels said. “You give more grace and understanding. We’ve been through the trenches together. It’s beyond loyalty. We joke that we’re work siblings because we’ve been through a number of life changes and chapters here that have made us into the people and leaders that we are. It’s changed a lot from when I started here, and I had something to prove. Now I’m like, ‘I think I proved it.’”

[Related: Consider These Women-Led Businesses in Seattle for Your Next Event]

SEAforSHE Logo
SEAforSHE Logo

Visit Seattle’s SEAforSHE Initiative

Visit Seattle’s efforts to empower women don’t stop at its C-suite.

As the No. 1 city for women entrepreneurs, according to Visit Seattle, the DMO sets out to celebrate women and create and environment in which they can lead no matter what position they hold or which industry they are a part of. One such way Visit Seattle does this is through its SEAforSHE initiative, which empowers women to come together, share ideas and build an inclusive community.

As the founding partner of the PCMA Ascent program promoting diversity and inclusion across the business events industry, Visit Seattle takes its responsibility as a leader in DEI seriously. The DMO often highlights its SEAforSHE initiative as a tool to help tell Seattle’s story of inclusion.

“The whole reason that Visit Seattle has a SEAforSHE program is that Seattle does embrace women in positions of leadership and has for a long time. There is an abundance of women leaders here in Seattle,” Blount-Canavan said. “This is a community where women help women. And men celebrate women, too. Because it's such an inclusive community that does actually support its people, there's no shortage of resources there.”

“We’ve normalized women in leadership,” Saling said. “It’s not that I’m unaware or have forgotten what the rest of the world looks like, but it is a pretty cool privilege to live where this is normal. That is a good model for the rest of the world. It is not only accepted, it is encouraged.”

One way Visit Seattle’s SEAforSHE initiative empowers women is through custom Badge of Honor pins that celebrate the community. Meant to be worn proudly or passed along to another inspirational women, the Badge of Honor pins are broken into categories based on various traits and skills such as:

  • Boss Lady: A confident, unapologetic, hard worker who takes charge and empowers others.
  • Encourager: A trusted advisor, mentor and friend who pushes others forward and guides others on their path to success.
  • Giver of Good: Someone who spreads joy and kindness wherever they go, has a big heart and wants to leave the world better than they found it.
  • Legend: Someone who emanates greatness, an originator who earned the respect of their peers and left their mark on the world.
  • Warrior: A brave and honorable individual who is ready to take on whatever challenges they face and willing to do the right thing.

Even more Badges of Honor are available on Visit Seattle’s SEAforSHE webpage.

As for what other DMOs and industry-related companies can do to empower women, the advice Visit Seattle has to offer is simple: be willing to empower others who are different than you.

“I would lean back into Visit Seattle's imperative for inclusivity and empowering everyone who is a part of our team, regardless of their role and regardless of their gender or their orientation or their religion or their background,” Blount-Canavan suggested.  

“There’s a reason women are going to take over the world,” Daniels said. “Get on board.”  

DISCLAIMER: Interviews for this feature story took place prior to the announcement that Ali Daniels, former SVP and chief marketing officer for Visit Seattle, would be leaving the CVB for a new opportunity. Her responses do not reflect this career move but are included throughout this feature as Daniels' story sheds light on Visit Seattle's efforts to empower women in leadership roles. 

Read more Diversity & Inclusion content from Meetings Today.

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.