A New Direction
What seemed like a move toward retirement
for Carol Wallace was just another door opening
Starting a consultancy and easing into semi-retirement after 35 years of venues industry service appears to have been one of those best-laid plans that went a bit astray for former San Diego Convention Center Corp. President and CEO Carol Wallace.
Now president and CEO of San Diego Theatres Inc., the nonprofit entity that runs the San Diego Civic Theatre and Balboa Theatre, Wallace was still with the SDCC and owned an impressive resume in 2012 when some of the center’s sales and marketing functions were shifted to the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and moves to expand the center stalled.
Wallace started Carol Wallace & Associates, which offers consulting services in the areas of venue management, marketing and communications, staffing, facility development and expansion. The San Diego Convention Center, it turns out, was Carol Wallace & Associates’ first client after her 2015 retirement.
With her efforts focused on consulting, things seemed to be proceeding as planned, but it wasn’t long before she was back in the business of running public assembly facilities. And now she’s a member of the Class of 2020 of VenuesNow’s Hall of Honor.
The start of Wallace’s change in trajectory began in 2014, when the CEO of San Diego Theatres retired after 40 years and his replacement lasted just 18 months, leaving the position vacant for a couple of years.
Wallace was hired to do an organizational analysis and prepare for an executive search, but after serving as interim CEO, she was asked to take the post on a permanent basis. She accepted and was appointed in 2018.
Wallace says she’s relishing her role leading the nonprofit, which manages, operates and markets the Civic and Balboa theaters under long-term leases with the city of San Diego. With a combined annual budget of more than $8 million, the theaters are the performing arts homes of Broadway/San Diego, the San Diego Opera and California Ballet, welcoming more than half a million patrons to events annually before the pandemic hit.
“I love theater, always have, and in my retirement, I was paying to go see a lot of theater,” she said. “Then I said, ‘You know, they’re going to pay me to be there. This could work.’”
It’s been a good fit, Wallace said, noting that San Diego Theatres had been under the aegis of the convention center corporation during her tenure there before it was eventually made a separate entity. She has reconnected with people she’s known for 20 to 30 years, some of them San Diego Theatre board members who had been on the convention center corporation board.
“It was almost like a coming home, at a time to help them get to the next level,” she said. “I’m excited to do that.”
It wouldn’t be the first time she helped an organization elevate itself.
During Wallace’s 25 years at the helm, the SDCC, with an annual budget of more than $33 million and a combined full- and part-time staff of about 550 people, became one of the nation’s top convention facilities, hosting the annual Comic-Con of international renown. Wallace oversaw an expansion that was completed in 2001 and helped cement the venue as a trend-setting driver of the area’s economic activity.
Once the 2001 expansion was complete, Wallace began working with the city and the Port of San Diego to expand further.
Before coming to the SDCC in 1991, Wallace was part of the team that planned and in 1990 opened the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where she was executive director for nearly three years. Before that, the Ohio State University graduate was assistant general manager of the Dallas Convention Center, where she started her venue career on her birthday in 1980.
Wallace, who’s married and the mother of three adult children, has been deeply involved with the International Association of Venue Managers throughout her career, having served as the group’s rotating president under a previous organizational structure. In 2004, she received its highest honor, the Charles A. McElravy Award, when the organization was still known as the International Association of Assembly Managers. For part of 2016, she served as IAVM’s interim CEO before the hiring of current top executive Brad Mayne.
A Venues Today Women of Influence honoree in 2007, Wallace at the time cited industry leaders Frank Poe and Jerry Barshop, with whom she worked in Dallas, as her “hands down” top mentors.
During her decades of service, Wallace has mentored, influenced and been an ally to a number of industry notables, people like Larry Perkins, vice president of guest relations and assistant general manager of PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., and Shura Garnett, senior vice president of convention centers with OVG Facilities (a unit of VenuesNow parent company Oak View Group).
Garnett met Wallace when she joined IAVM. “She was serving as district vice president and I was simply in awe of her. She was so articulate, graceful and smart. I remember thinking to myself that I hoped one day to be as successful and impactful in the industry as she was,” Garnett said.
When Wallace became president of the organization, “she hosted her president’s reception and included me in the invitation,” Garnett said. “As I stood next to her, she leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I hope to see you in this position in the future.’ Thanks to her willingness to always lend an ear, share wisdom and advice, and allow me to volunteer for her through her leadership roles, I was able to stand in that same position of IAVM president/chairman of the board several years later.
“Carol has been an inspiration to women in this industry, but she has been an ally to all in this industry.”
That sentiment was echoed by Perkins.
“I first met Carol in 1987. It was during the first IAVM conference I attended,” he said. “She, along with Frank Poe, were hosting the International Crowd Management Conference in Dallas. I didn’t know what to expect and I certainly didn’t expect to see many people that looked like me. You can only imagine my surprise and delight to see an African American, and a lady at that, leading the conference.”
Wallace was “warm, gracious, professional and knowledgeable,” he said.
“I knew right then that I wasn’t alone and just maybe I too could plot a course just as Carol did to advance and serve our industry,” Perkins said. “I never asked her about her journey, I didn’t have to. Her character and deeds spoke to me loud and clear.”
Wallace chose “Leadership” as one of her buzzwords during her year as IAVM president, Perkins said.
“That exemplifies her very being,” he said. “I’m proud to know her, to call her a dear friend, and I’m thankful that I saw her during my very first conference, which helped set the stage for my own career path in the venue management industry.”
Tom Liegler, who preceded Wallace as general manager at the San Diego Convention Center, is another of Wallace’s mentors. She also points to Joyce Leveston, now senior vice president of convention centers at Spectra, and Julia Slocombe, vice president of western region operations at Smart City Networks, as women with whom she has established valuable relationships.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve done and to see where they are in their careers,” Wallace said. “It’s great to look back to how we’ve grown together and how they’ve gone on and are continuing to build their own careers and be icons in the industry.”
Wallace says that her work at the San Diego Convention Center gives her particular pride.
“San Diego changed the convention center world at a time when convention centers started out being square boxes,” she said. “San Diego really pushed that image and became a top-notch convention center (with) fine dining, white glove service (and high-level guest services).
“It really pushed the envelope, including from the vantage point of how we market convention centers that really stood the whole industry on its head. We were very successful in that model. It changed how people look at convention centers as economic drivers and what they bring to communities.”
Wallace says the view of convention centers as community assets is carrying over to other types of facilities like the San Diego Civic and Balboa theaters.
“That’s something people had not thought of before,” she said. “That is just beginning, which is why I’m happy to be on this end … to bring that whole mind-set of thinking of cultural institutions as a value add and what they bring to a community.”
Wallace, whose high school graduation ceremony was canceled in 1967 because of race riots in and around Cincinnati — part of what was called “The Long Hot Summer” — says opportunities for women and people of color in the venues industry have grown over the decades but tend to ebb and flow depending on prevailing economic conditions.
“What I’m excited about now is you see the multicultural nature of the recognition of Black, indigenous and people of color,” she said. “I think worldwide people look at people of color in a different manner. People of color look at themselves (differently). So I think we have a chance now to really bring people into various industries, not just ours but others, and move forward. I think (people of color) are better represented. There has always been participation at a very low level, but I’d like to see more. There’s not nearly enough of what it should be, but I’m hopeful (about) where we are and what we are beginning to do.”
She considers young people entering the venues and other industries less tied to patterns that have long dominated hiring and promotion practices. Some were born at a time when Wallace was already more than 10 years into her industry career, Wallace said.
“They are coming in more accepting and they value people of color, across all spectrums,” Wallace said. “I see younger kids looking at the person, looking beyond the color, and that’s so hopeful. They see you as people, as human beings.”
Wallace has advice for people entering or considering venue industry careers.
“I’ll steal a phrase from (former President Barack) Obama: Yes, you can,” she said. “So many times, people enter the industry and get caught up in all that’s going on. We are a busy, busy, busy industry. We deal with thousands of people and a lot of little details, but I’m happy to see people look above that and look at how they can get involved in leadership, particularly with IAVM, and how they can get involved in committees and committing your time beyond just work. So, I would say to young people getting into this and looking for potential careers to look at how they can get involved in the industry and move the industry forward.”
One of the big benefits to her career has come from people like Barshop, an industry leader who taught her to get involved, go to events, volunteer and give back. That kind of engagement causes all boats in the harbor to rise with the tide and also pays dividends professionally in terms of networking in an industry that is at once vast and close-knit.
“People sometimes don’t realize how important that is, that you’re visible in the industry and that you are giving back to the industry and that you’re providing your leadership to the industry and bringing your voice to the industry,” she said. “Those are real career boosters that people sometimes overlook.”
Wallace says she learned from Poe the importance of being ethical and straightforward and to deliver news, good or bad, with honesty and respect.
“People can appreciate when you’re honest and ethical,” she said. “When you deliver bad news, I always try to be transparent and tell people the truth, and people understand we’re going to work toward a solution together.”
As for what lies ahead for an industry hit hard by the pandemic, Wallace said it has been great to hear about progress in COVID-19 vaccines, but upheaval wrought by the crisis is wreaking permanent changes.
“We’re in, as well we all know, a whole new world,” she said. “Think about post-9/11. Look at how the world changed.”
The experience of air transportation has never been the same and so it will be in venues and live entertainment, she said, adding that venue managers and event organizers across the board will know just who’s in their facilities and attending their events just as airlines know who is aboard their planes. Cleaning methods and health and safety protocols instituted during the spread of coronavirus will remain after the crisis fades.
“It’s not just about security anymore, it’s about health security and maintaining the health of people,” she said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic is the issue with which the industry is grappling today, but there will be new ones coming down the pike. “As I said, we’re in a brave new world and some of the changes are here to stay.”
What lies ahead for Wallace?
“I love theater,” she said. It’s a passion fueled by going to live productions with her mother as a youngster.
“Now, as I am ‘retired,’ I’m being regenerated with a new career,” one that brings the opportunity to champion the arts and the venues where they are presented as community cultural assets.
“I don’t think we’ve thought about that before, and the value that they bring to creating a cultural life for a community,” she said. “So, I’m excited to be with San Diego Theatres. I’m excited that we operate two of the largest theaters in this region, one (the Balboa) that’s going to be 100 years old in 2024. I’m excited to start talking about the role and value of our cultural institutions in our community and in our lives and how important it is.”
She’ll also continue to be involved in IAVM and helping advance the goals of women and people of color in the venues industry.
“I feel that in retirement I get to pick fun stuff to do,” she said. “I get to choose the fun stuff.”