Women at the Helm: The Three Dynamic Females Running Detroit’s Huntington Place
Three is not a crowd when it comes to the leadership team at Huntington Place. While female executives and general managers are becoming more and more common at convention centers across North America, few U.S. facilities can claim an all-female leadership team made up of three dynamic industry veterans: Lisa Canada, chairwoman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA) and the DRCFA Arts Committee; Karen Totaro, general manager; and Becky Bixby, assistant general manager. Bringing decades of experience to their roles, the powerful trio has made Detroit’s downtown convention center a veritable unicorn in one of the most male-dominated facets of the trade show and events industry.
Once the sole woman on the DRCFA’s five-person board of directors (responsible for overseeing operations at Huntington Place) when she was appointed in early 2015, Canada boasts an impressive 20-year professional background working with organized labor, politics and government affairs. A Northern Michigan native, she also serves as political and legislative director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, one of the most active and influential political organizations in the state, among her other pro-labor executive board member roles.
“In 2015, I was on Warren Evans’ campaign committee for Wayne County Executive, and I think he saw some leadership skills in me,” Canada recalled. “In 2016, he asked me to represent the county of the DRCFA and at the time, I was the only woman. Now three of the five board members are women. I think we’ve made great strides.”
Responsible for the overall management, promotion and operation of the convention center, where she leads a team of dedicated professionals, builds on key industry partnerships in the community and supports the overall mission of the venue and the DRCFA, Totaro boasts a wealth of venue experience from her years working in executive roles at major facilities, including San Diego Convention Center, Atlantic City Convention Center, Duke Energy Convention Center and Oregon Convention Center.
A Certified Venue Executive through the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) and a graduate of their Academy of Venue Safety and Security, Totaro is an event industry veteran who fell into the profession at a young age and never looked back.
“I was working my way through college with a part-time job at the [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] arena,” Totaro explained. “I loved the organized chaos of putting on events and became addicted. I am now working in my seventh venue and still love it as much as I did when I was 18, though I’m a wee bit wiser. I love the adrenaline before a show opens, love the people I meet, the team focus and making an impact for the communities I get to serve.”
A 30-year industry veteran who came to Huntington Place earlier this year from Informa Markets, where she oversaw client services for 20 trade shows and more than two dozen digital events, Bixby is not only responsible for all day-to-day operational aspects of the venue but also leads its LEED certification efforts and sustainability initiatives.
“I love working in this industry because of the people and that no two days are alike,” Bixby said. “I thoroughly enjoy working with the team at Huntington Place—we share a passion for events and the city of Detroit, [and] I am also constantly learning and experiencing new things. Challenging myself in this way keeps me engaged and not wanting to do anything else!”
TSNN recently had the unique pleasure of catching up with these three powerhouses to hear what they enjoy most about working together, how they created their well-oiled-machine-type synergy and what it’s going to take to get more women into the C-suite at venues so that all-female executive teams will no longer be a novelty.
In the venue side of the industry, all-female leadership teams are a rarity. What has your synergy been like so far and how have you been able to build a strong and effective team?
Lisa Canada: The DRCFA needs a consensus vote to move any proposed measure forward, and it allows us to dig in, debate and compromise, so it works out really well. The process itself builds synergy and helps us examine all possibilities.
Karen Totaro: We are the only convention center in the country that has two female execs actually running the day-to-day operation, and then you add a female board chair, and we are a unicorn in the venue world. The connection comes out of all appreciating each other and understanding how hard it is to forge our way in heavily male-dominated fields. I so appreciate both ladies’ sense of humor and always working towards solutions. We appreciate diversity and inclusion and truly believe that is our “superpower” in Detroit and especially at Huntington Place.
Becky Bixby: It’s an amazing team at Huntington Place. and I consider myself very lucky to be a part of it. There’s a great energy here that is exciting and catching. Having been in my role for five months, I’ve appreciated learning from these two women about how I can grow even more as a leader. There is a common respect from our collective experiences that makes it an honest and trusting environment. This is what I pass down to my team. Being empathic when needed, removing roadblocks where I can, figuring out projects to achieve and holding them accountable along the way makes us strong and effective.
Speaking about each other, what are the qualities your colleagues bring to their roles that empower them to excel at their jobs, and what do you most admire about them?
LC: As events come back to the center, we each bring a different perspective on how to rebuild the business, and all are important to providing the flexibility and expanded event options that events are looking for when they return face to face. The DRCFA is moving ahead with projects to improve the building and expand the convention center’s offering. Karen and Becky have their fingers on the pulse of what sales, marketing, operations, technology and sustainability offerings customers need here in the new normal.
KT: I so admire Lisa for taking on the chair role, as that is not an easy job when you work full time and need to meet the needs of the board, the DRCFA team, the ASM Global venue team and all the other stakeholders. She is smart and politically astute, and tough when she needs to be. I want all little girls to grow up to be Lisa.
Becky is a gem, as I did not want a “mini-me” to serve in the role of AGM, I wanted someone who would complement my skill set with their own skill set, so we have even more ability to serve our venue, our team and our community. Becky also has worked in venues as a contractor and as a client, so she really gets the 360 needs of an event.
BB: Having a common goal to make Huntington Place the best convention destination in the world is a driving force. All of us want to do the right thing for our employees, the building and Detroit. Their confidence from years of experience is something to admire. They have a seat at the table and are actively participating to make this a better venue. The ability to laugh along the way really helps in this industry, and they have that in spades!
What have you all learned most about yourselves during the past two years, and how has that helped you as a female leader?
LC: The last two years have shown me clearly how much we need to focus on employee health and providing customers with what they need to succeed in our venue. My biggest challenge was worrying about the staff getting ill before vaccinations were available during the pandemic. Our staff remained on the job to create a field hospital for FEMA, distribute food from the docks with Food Rescue US Detroit, create the drive-through vaccination site in our Atwater garage, the largest site in the city and provide meals and services to Detroit’s most vulnerable citizens with the Pope Francis Center. Calling people back to work before we could give the vaccinations was a difficult decision to make knowing they have families, and some members may be immune-compromised. I think we overcame the challenge by keeping the best interest of the employees in mind and by providing health care information opportunities as much as possible.
KT: I have learned I am stronger than I imagined, but I cannot carry it all. As women, we tend to just jump in and help, but as leaders, we have to ensure we are delegating well so that the next generation is learning. I and other leaders need to focus on the future. I learned I still have a great capacity for learning, and that I need to lead in my own way so my team sees it’s okay to be your authentic self.
BB: The nature of the events industry is ever-changing. You can prepare all you want, but there will always be a curveball thrown at you, and you need to adapt quickly. The past two years have made the world adapt in ways that we have never seen before in our lifetimes. It’s made me take a step back and reevaluate things. It’s helped me become more open-minded that people experience these types of incidents in different ways. This understanding has helped me become more empathic and creative in helping others.
What are some of the biggest challenges prospective women leaders currently face in the events industry, and what advice would you give to overcome them?
KT: The biggest challenge is we need to get more women sitting in the big boy chairs. I have wonderful friends and mentors who are the big boys and do indeed encourage women to take the risk and apply for the next-level position they are afraid they are not ready for. We seem to believe we have to be perfect to get the big jobs, [but] we have to get over that, take risks and jump in the fire. The fire is the path to the big boy chair! As a woman mentor told me years ago “just jump in the fire. Men do it all the time. Take the risk!”
BB: We’ve made a lot of strides as women come into more leadership positions, but it is still male-dominated. That can be intimidating. Don’t get frustrated, rather believe in yourself and your capabilities. Gain experience and exposure where you can in order to gain confidence. Find your passion, and if you see a role that intrigues you, go for it!
Know of a dynamic woman leader in the events industry who deserves some time in the spotlight? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.