Michele Vennard announced in October 2017 that she would be leaving her position as president and CEO of Discover Albany, in spring 2018. Meetings Today reached out to Vennard for some insight into the destination and her plans for retirement.
How developed was Albany’s meetings and tourism scene when you joined the bureau as its first tourism director in 1981?
I came to the bureau, which was established in 1976, from a marketing and retail background. Albany’s hotel occupancy tax had just been approved. For the most part, our small staff was “learning” travel and tourism. We focused on the group tour market because it would provide measurable results. It remains a great market for learning the destination marketing business.
You traveled many miles and had your own significant learning experience before becoming CEO.
In 1984, I left the bureau to work with NYS Destinations, a destination marketing firm with clients including hotels, ski areas and Adirondack tour boats. Three years later, I was offered the position of Deputy Commissioner of Tourism for the NYS Department of Economic Development—working on the “I Love New York” campaign.
Spending almost five years there, I developed programs and policy that affected the industry statewide, plus national level efforts as a state director. The late ’80s presented tough economic times for the state, which unfortunately meant presiding over draconian budget cuts that threatened the entire program. Then, in 1992, I took the opportunity to rejoin the bureau and come home!
How has Albany’s meetings and tourism story evolved since then?
Like many destinations, we cannot tell the meetings and tourism story often enough, locally. Our work, still misunderstood by many, was reason for greater focus within the region and the change as an organization from destination marketing to destination management. Without working to maintain and grow vibrant and successful tourism infrastructure, we will have little to market to the world.
For six years, through our 501(c)(3) Foundation, we have made small grants to 40-plus tourism related organizations, events and programs totaling $260,000. Engaged in our community, our staff is consulted often for positive input. Overall, I am most proud of the work we do.
How has the region’s business and economic story most changed since 1981?
We are finally breaking out of our “Government Town” reputation. Government and state association business remain vital, but opportunity has greatly expanded, with education, technology, bio-medical, photovoltaic, pharma, chip fab and even gaming all now part of the region’s DNA.
What are your reflections on seeing the vision of a dedicated convention center come to fruition?
It has been a true team effort, even though many team members have changed through the years. I have a copy of an original proposal published in 1985, and the Albany Capital Center (ACC) is not too far from that vision. I have other archived proposals, but once the site was determined, the team effort really kicked in. Faced with many challenging decisions, the well-guided Authority Board stayed the course, completing on time and on budget a facility that New York’s capital city can market with pride.
Where you do see Albany’s meetings industry heading in the future?
Technology meetings alone, often attracting global participation, are creating a steady buzz of business activity. With the ACC already providing new opportunities to showcase the destination, the emergence of the Capital Complex and its four connected venues will provide even greater future opportunity.
Any special plans for your retirement?
At this point, I am more focused on cleaning up 25 years of files! I would like to remain active, though, perhaps in travel. I prefer to think of this not necessarily as retirement, but more as the next act.