Originally Posted On: Women at the Helm: Kaitlin Eskelson, President & CEO, Visit Salt Lake | Corporate Event News

Ask about Visit Salt Lake (VSL) President and CEO Kaitlin Eskelson’s long and accomplished career in the travel and tourism industry and prepare to be impressed. As the organization’s youngest chief executive and only the fourth person to hold the leadership role in its 36-year history, she has made her mark through passionately crafted programs and strategies designed to secure a strong future for business events and tourism in Salt Lake City and Utah.

Since taking the helm at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 16, 2020, Eskelson’s achievements to build back the city’s meetings and convention business are impressive. Refusing to be beaten by such daunting circumstances, she and her team successfully navigated the city’s recovery through a wide variety of robust strategic initiatives — from the successful passage of a new Convention & Tourism Assessment Areas and negotiations for the return of the biannual Outdoor Retailer trade shows, to the launch of Sports Salt Lake and the creation of transit solutions for the Cottonwood Canyons via the “Cottonwood Connect” ski shuttle service. 

She was also instrumental in the formation of the SALT Awards to celebrate frontline hospitality workers, the compilation of a five-year visionary plan and the opening of Salt and Honey Makers Market within VSL’s Visitor Information Center.

A consummate overachiever even before she assumed her current leadership role, Eskelson’s resume boasts a litany of high-profile positions, including serving as executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association (UTIA), as director of partner relations and international strategy for the Utah Office of Tourism Film & Global Branding and VSL’s director of sales and marketing.

Just in time for Women’s History Month, we had a chance to sit down with Eskelson to learn about her path into the industry, how she feels about being VSL’s youngest female leader, what she’s learned since taking the helm and the biggest challenges currently facing the destination marketing organizations (DMOs).

When and why did you get into the destination marketing and tourism industry and what do you like most about it?

Like many, I was lured to Utah by the siren song of world-class resorts and famous powder from my native Wisconsin to take a college gap year to ski. I fell in love with this amazing place and am now honored to lead an energetic team of professionals.

I’ve stayed true to my passion for the visitor economy and everything it brings to my community. All my experiences prior prepared me for this leadership role. In fact, my mantra from Marcel Proust is simple but resonant: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” 

I love everything about this business: the people, the challenge, the collaboration and most of all, the resiliency of the visitor economy through good times and difficult. I am continually empowered and impressed by this vibrant industry. At the end of the day, I care deeply about creating bright, capable teams and encouraging them to step outside the mainstream modes of operation to create a fruitful, collaborative environment for an open exchange of ideas.

You are VSL’s youngest female president and CEO – do you feel more performance pressure as a result?

[The pressures of leadership] are just different than they were for each of the CEOs that preceded my term. Each faced different challenges and opportunities, but each faced equal pressures because of the strong responsibility of this CEO position to the people of Salt Lake in our role of improving the area economy. 

Dianne Nelson Binger served as our first female president and CEO at Visit Salt Lake, and she served what was then the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau for 18 years. I received the sales leadership award in her memory in 2009 while working in sales at Visit Salt Lake.

I feel that women play a pivotal role in our society, simultaneously managing business leadership and cultivating cohesive and supportive family dynamics. I truly believe women executives are the unsung rock stars who deftly balance key leadership roles with supporting childhood education, running efficient households and fostering healthy marriages and friendships – all key elements to any strong society. We are natural problem-solvers, and we are also very collaborative in our approach.

While I’ve learned to be super-adaptable and pivot my leadership role, as a professional CEO and working mother of three, there’s nothing anyone can throw at me that my twin girls haven’t already! My approach to leadership is simple: I strive to be the type of leader for whom I would want to work.

Innovation demands the ability to think independently and act courageously, the willingness to consider new ideas supported by the skills to champion them into reality and the humble ability to “fail quickly” and succeed with grace.

What have been your biggest lessons since assuming your leadership role four years ago?

I’ve learned that it truly takes a team to create the big idea, the big win and move mountains. I believe strongly in letting your team dream big and come up with big ideas and not be afraid to fail. It’s important to empower decision making to be able to get huge projects completed from idea to completion in record time.

I’ve also learned that environmental responsibility is key to our long-term success. Working with the professionals at ASM Global, the management team of the Salt Palace Convention Center and Mountain America Exposition Center, I strive to create cooperative programs for reducing waste, reusing and repurposing materials and food and recycling the rest.

Key to my leadership role is the ability to forge cooperative working relationships with city, county and state elected leaders to not only educate them about the value of tourism and why there’s a compelling reason to fund marketing efforts, but also to help craft solid policies that contribute to the vibrancy of our amazing urban basecamp.

With a longer-term focus on what will support the visitor economy, we continue our collaborative efforts surrounding alcohol and tax policies, working closely with elected officials so they clearly understand and champion the visitor economy, pursuing legislative strategies that support tourism and provide substantial tax relief to households throughout Utah.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing DMOs at this time and how is VSL addressing them?

Moving into a bright future, balancing record visitation with quality of experience is key to creating lasting social and economic impact that serves our entire destination. Key components we are continually addressing are staffing for our hospitality partners, destination alignment, sustainable development, marketing budgets and revenue sources and environmental responsibility.

The global pandemic brought with it seismic shifts in meetings and tourism trends. Now, more than ever, destination management organizations need to reassess their strategic priorities, focusing on talent management and thought leadership for staffing issues affecting our industry. Salt Lake is on the rise as an “up and coming” city, and locally we have an urgent need to prepare our visitor economy partners as the need for trained workforce rises.   

The team at Visit Salt Lake intrinsically understands that to drive long-term health of the tourism industry, growth must be sustainable, inclusive and must benefit all through managed growth.

Visit Salt Lake is a private, non-profit corporation responsible for the promotion of Salt Lake as a convention and travel destination. In partnership with Salt Lake County, Visit Salt Lake improves the area economy by attracting and providing support to conventions, sports events, leisure travelers and visitors with a strong commitment to sustainability and stewardship of the area’s natural environment. Through its sales and marketing programs, Visit Salt Lake’s impact on Salt Lake’s annual $5.4 billion visitor economy equates to nearly $1,800 in tax relief for each household within Salt Lake County. For more information on all that Salt Lake has to offer, go to www.VisitSaltLake.com.