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Celebrating Female Leaders at the Women in Tourism and Hospitality National Conference

Clara Carter (middle) with attendees at the 2024 WITH Conference

Back in November 2015, Clara Carter, founder and CEO of Multi-Cultural Convention Services Network (MCCSN), asked herself how she could more intentionally celebrate Women’s History Month.

“I just wanted to highlight the good work that women were doing in hospitality and tourism, because we weren’t always seeing it,” Carter said. “I had never been to an event where they were talking about what women were doing in the industry.”

Clara Carter, CEO of Multi-Cultural Convention Services Network and founder of the Women in Tourism & Hospitality Conference
Clara Carter, CEO of Multi-Cultural Convention Services Network and founder of the Women in Tourism & Hospitality Conference

For Women’s History Month in March 2016, Carter decided to host an awards luncheon for San Diego-based women in tourism and hospitality, during which she honored six women—and wondered if she could get them all to show.

“People said, ‘Oh, Clara, you know it’s gonna be hard to get them away for lunch!’” Carter remembered. “But I just thought, ‘Everybody’s gotta eat!’”

After three years of successful sell-out awards luncheon events, Carter hosted the first annual Women in Tourism & Hospitality Conference (WITH) in 2021, an event she “never would’ve imagined” her luncheon turning into when it started nearly a decade ago. This past March, she welcomed more than 250 attendees from across the U.S. and her first title sponsor, the East Point Georgia CVB, to the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine in San Diego.

“Not only did I think about doing this to spotlight these women, but I wanted to provide them with a platform in which to tell their stories on how they were able to break the glass ceiling and lead in these various tourism sectors that are male dominated,” Carter said. “So, I said, ‘Take off your titles and let’s just have a women-to-women talk, because I know the challenges that I go through in this space, and I can only imagine what those challenges are like for you in the corporate sector.’

Taylor Smith and panelists at the 2024 WITH Conference
Taylor Smith and panelists at the 2024 WITH Conference

“We started building this safe haven, this community of women that are sharing information freely to other women to inspire them, motivate them, elevate them in their respective careers or as entrepreneurs,” Carter continued. “We became mentors to one another, and when we realized what we had started, we knew we had to keep going.”  

Since then, Carter has taken her luncheon and turned it into a 1.5-day national conference, drawing nearly 300 attendees from across the country to the San Diego area to highlight the industry’s trailblazing executive female leaders. Supporters, industry sponsors and donors have helped the conference grow by 25% every year since 2016 and led to the start of the WITH International non-profit organization, providing scholarships, training, mentorship and career opportunities to young adults throughout San Diego’s communities.

I had the opportunity to attend this year’s WITH Conference March 28-29 at Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine as a guest speaker, and I completely understand why Carter’s celebration continues to grow year after year.

The crowd was overwhelmingly friendly and supportive. Every attendee had something wonderful to say about all the others, and the networking that took place was beyond genuine. It was undeniable that everyone was there for the same reason: to help other women in tourism and hospitality grow.  

Here are some highlights from this year’s WITH Conference.

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

Student and Young Professional Development Day

Since hosting the first annual WITH Conference in 2021, Carter has made an effort every year to include some sort of programming for students and young professionals.  

“I always believe in having my instructor hat on and do what I can to make sure my events include our young professionals because that’s our future,” Carter said.

Carter started blocking off 45 minutes to an hour of time at every conference for speed networking between WITH honorees and young professionals. But no matter how much time she gave attendees to connect with one another and find mentor-mentee pairings, Carter said they continued asking for more.

Taylor Smith at Student and Young Professional Development Day
Taylor Smith at Student and Young Professional Development Day

“How many opportunities do you get as a mentee to sit down with a C-suite female leader in tourism and hospitality?” Carter said. “Speed networking became a central part of our program, and I continuously heard from honorees and young professionals that this was one of their favorite parts of the conference. So, I listened, and this year I took those 45 minutes and turned them into a half-day of learning, mentoring and being inspired.”

Carter, with the help of Dari DeSousa, owner, founder and consultant at DeSousa Professional Human Resources Group, and Whitney Taylor, senior catering sales manager at Hotel del Coronado, organized the first-ever WITH Conference Student and Young Professional Development Day on Thursday, March 28.

The program allowed dozens of students and young professionals the opportunity to learn insights from 20 industry leaders through roundtable networking sessions, a Q&A panel discussion with female C-suite leaders and three “Career Booster Breakout” sessions, during which students had one-on-one time with skilled HR or hospitality leaders to review their resumes, have a mock interview or update their LinkedIn profiles. One young professional traveled from as far away as North Carolina to attend.

“The key lesson? Networking,” DeSousa said. “The art—and bravery—of putting yourself out there and taking action to meet others is hard. This day provided a safe space to do that. For many, it was their first networking event. We prepared everyone with a pre-conference note on how to make the most of the day, and they rose to the challenge.”

Whether attendees were full-time students or already working, DeSousa said, stepping out, interacting with others in their fields and hearing from experienced professionals can give them a new perspective and renewed energy.

“The conversations held, the networking that occurred and the insight gained was a fantastic opportunity for everyone participating. It’s a boost I know I would have loved early on in my career,” DeSousa said. “The goal of the WITH Conference is to lift up women in the hospitality industry, and the Student and Young Professional Development Day did just that!”

[Related Podcast: The Z: Gen Z Expert Luke Goetting on Fostering Collaborative and Productive Environments for Incoming Professionals]  

Clara Carter (middle) with the 2024 WITH Conference Honorees
Clara Carter (middle) with the 2024 WITH Conference Honorees

WITH Honoree Luncheon and Awards Presentation

At the heart of everything the WITH Conference stands for is the honoree luncheon and awards presentation, which honors “women who are WITH it!” in tourism and hospitality—role models, high-achievers, game-changers, rule-breakers and trailblazers. 

2024 WITH Conference Honoree Luncheon and Awards Presentation
2024 WITH Conference Honoree Luncheon and Awards Presentation

At the 2024 WITH Conference, six women were celebrated for their work and contributions in the industry:

  • Peggy Berg, Founder of Castell, an American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) Foundation Project (WITH Lifetime Achievement Award recipient)
  • Maren Dougherty, Executive Director, Marketing & Communications, San Diego Convention Center Corporation
  • Tatiana Lotufo, Vice President of Business Development & Strategic Partnership, ACCESS
  • Thiphakhoun ‘Tipi’ Vyrasith, Director of Food & Beverage, Hotel del Coronado
  • Chantel Ross Francois, President, East Point Georgia CVB
  • Sarah Lynch, Co-founder and COO, Brick Hospitality (Rising Star Award recipient)

“We just want to let them know that we appreciate them and their contributions in tourism and hospitality,” Carter said. “They’re the women that we’re standing on the shoulders of. They’re the ones who are paving a path for the rest of us to stand up and show up, to be our best selves. I just really love having the opportunity to honor these women every chance I get.” 

Details for next year's WITH Conference have yet to be shared, but those interested in attending can stay in the know by visiting

Read this next: Meet the Women Behind Visit Seattle’s C-Suite

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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.