It’s been three months since Deborah Sexton passed the reins as president and CEO of PCMA, a position she held for 13 years, to Sherrif Karamat who was previously COO of the association.
In the last week of what she referred to as a “self-imposed sabbatical,” Sexton heeded the call of Meet Puerto Rico to fly down to the island and speak to a group of meeting planners here to “rediscover” the destination and assess how it is faring following Hurricane Maria last October 2017.
Before she delivered a presentation at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art on recent findings from Convene's 27th Annual Meetings Market Survey released in Feburary 2018 and thoughts on Puerto Rico’s recovery, we sat down with Sexton to get her opinions on Puerto Rico, issues facing our industry and the burning question: Where is she is headed now?
Deborah’s Take on Puerto Rico
As Puerto Rico continues its recovery efforts and works to dispel misconceptions about its power grid and get the message out that the island is ready to receive meetings, Sexton stressed the importance of collaboration.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of our industry and I’m optimistic about the future of Puerto Rico as well to move forward and make necessary changes,” she said. “I believe it’s a moral imperative for our industry and those in it to recognize that Puerto Rico needs our assistance at this point.
“There are areas and challenges that still exist but I don’t believe they will affect the experience that can be delivered to a group coming here,” she added.
Sexton said Puerto Rico and other destinations coming back from natural disasters can learn a lot from places like New Orleans.
“The reason why New Orleans was successful in getting back on their feet after Katrina in 2005 had a great deal to do with the depths of the relationships they had in the industry,” she said.
“Those in the bureau picked up the phone and said, ‘We need your help.’ We’ll assure you that you’ll have a great experience but we need your help now to help us get back on our feet," she added.
Sexton said the industry accepted the challenge, including PCMA, which arranged to flip a year with Orlando, where it was scheduled to hold its annual convention in 2009, so it could get to New Orleans for the show.
“We are just a small example of how the industry stepped in to help New Orleans, as many other organizations and past customers took the challenge as well to come and help,” she said. “That has to happen in Puerto Rico."
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Sexton is confident Puerto Rico can deliver on a value proposition and a promise in the tourism area and believes the destination also must package the experiences with CSR projects.
“With New Orleans, I told them it was imperative to get their arms around where these projects and these nonprofits existed in their community and make sure they’re legitimate,” she said. "Then you have to push those out so people so they realize there are things they can do.”
CSR was a major aspect of PCMA’s annual convention in New Orleans in 2009, and Sexton said that while 600 to 700 attendees were interested in participating in projects to help the local community, the association cut it off at 400 people because there weren’t enough projects available for everyone to realistically participate.
With 400 people, though, PCMA made a huge impact.
“We planted gardens, we cleaned cemeteries, we planted a park, we built a house with Habitat for Humanity and we painted a school—all with 400 people in a day and a half,” she said. “And in every instance, it was fascinating what the community did to show how grateful they were.
“One of our groups was out planting a garden and out came three women from the neighborhood with fresh-baked cookies and hot chocolate for the volunteers,” she continued.
“People were just crying. It made it such an impactful experience," she added. “I believe CSR projects are becoming more and more important, and destinations need to be able to handle it."
Sexton pointed to the GivingGood.com website PCMA started a few years ago as an example of how destinations can make it easy for planners and companies to participate in CSR efforts. The site is now supported by associations such as MPI, ASAE and Destinations International.
Through the site, users pick a destination and a category such as working with children or schools or parks, then a number of CSR initiatives are populated by the participating destination.
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“Right now, I think selling your choice of a destination to a board and tying that into saying ‘Our attendees want to feel good about themselves, and they want to participate, so not only do I think they can do a good job for our meeting financially, but I think we can add this, which will make it very exciting’ [is a good strategy],” she said.
There are any number of activities to help communities and schools in Puerto Rico, for example, recover from Hurricane Maria, one being replanting coffee trees that were wiped out in the storm.
A group of planners on an April 2018 FAM trip, which Meetings Today was a part of, headed to Hacienda Munoz to do just that and get a taste of the rich history and intricate process of coffee farming.
Sexton said moving forward, with Puerto Rico’s newly formed DMO launching soon with Brad Dean, formerly of the Myrtle Beach CVB, at its helm, it’s a golden opportunity for industry organizations and meeting planners to support that team and realize that the destination is and has been ready to welcome groups for several months.
What’s in Store for Sexton?
“I’m not going to leave the industry because I love it,” she said.
“I’m talking to a number of different people about projects that I think are critical and need to be addressed in our industry in a different way than they’re being addressed today," Sexton added.
One topic she is passionate about addressing is engagement and digital strategies at events.
“I believe not just associations but corporations are woefully behind in what I consider a need for a comprehensive engagement strategy with your audience,” she said. “And I think many of the consultants are making it too complex for people to grasp.
“Big data is another important one,” she added. “If you’re going to wait until you quote, unquote have 'big data' until you make any quality decisions, your organization is going to be swallowed up by somebody else.”
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Sexton stressed the importance of getting into the game and having a plan and a vision.
“That’s the future,” she said. “How are you engaging with an audience be they members, be they customers, be they just people interested in the industry?”
The future of tradeshows is another hot topic for Sexton.
“I think it’s important to look at who’s running these shows, why are they running them, are they effective, and is there a new model we can look at—not just for the show but how the shows are being managed to make it a more effective experience,” she said.
Sexton believes that looking at staffing and how to cater to a multigenerational group to stay engaged and excited about the industry is critical.
“It’s important not to be risk-averse, but to be innovative and constantly challenge the norm and test new ideas for groups to see how audiences react,” she said. “And you can stick your head in the sand and say everything is great, we’re making a ton of money on our shows, let’s just let it lie.
“But someone else will come along and engage your audience in a better way,” she added.
These are big challenges, Sexton admitted, not yet sure what her role will be.
Even though the details of her post-PCMA career have yet to become crystal clear, she’s confident that after her two-month sabbatical she’s ready to move forward.
“I’m not looking to become a CEO again, I’m not looking to travel 250,000 miles a year, but I’m also not looking to disappear,” she said. “I love work, and I love the industry, so where I can add value I hopefully will be able to.
“If all else fails, I’ll open a bookstore,” she quipped.
We have a feeling we won’t be asking for the name of that shop anytime soon.
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