Women at the Helm: Teri Orton, General Manager, Hawai‘i Convention Center 

April 28, 2022

Born and raised in the Hawaiian islands, Teri Orton’s passion for the hospitality industry started early. In fact, it’s part of her family legacy. Both her parents worked in hospitality, so she was born into and exposed to the industry as a small child, yet never felt the need to rebel against or stray from the family business as a young adult. 

After majoring in communications at the University of Hawai‘i and advancing her training in hospitality management through various certifications with Starwood and Hilton Hotels, Orton stayed the course, spending more than 25 years holding an array of management and sales and marketing roles with leading hotel brands including Embassy Suites, The Ilikai, W Diamond Head, Sheraton Princess Kai‘ulani and the Huntington Beach Hilton Resort.

In 2014, Orton had the chance to make the transition to facility management, joining ASM Global and the Hawai‘i Convention Center (HCC), the Aloha State’s sole convention facility, in Honolulu, as general manager, a move she says has been a great experience and a welcome change. 

“Managing a convention center is exciting,” she says. “No two events are ever the same—hosting small to large meetings one day to large indoor sporting events or festivals the next. It’s what I love about my job now. I’ve also had the pleasure of leading a wonderful team of professionals who are the best at what they do.”

When she’s not overseeing the HCC’s sales and marketing, operations, finance, food and beverage and customer service teams, as well as working with local convention and tourism agencies to implement strategic positioning and marketing plans for the facility, the nationally recognized hospitality executive can be found running, biking or swimming in the glorious natural beauty that the island of Oahu is so famous for, aside from its infectious Aloha spirit.

Corporate Event News had the unique opportunity to spend some time with Orton to hear her thoughts about the rise of women leaders in venue management, why mentorship is so crucial in helping to elevate more female event professionals to the C-suite and what she has learned about her teams and herself over the past two years.

Why do you think there are not more women in leadership positions in convention centers in North America?

Convention centers are in a unique niche that may not be as interesting, attractive or even on the radar as a career for women. What drew me to join the center was the opportunity to lead the only convention center in the state. I thought it would be a great opportunity to try something new without having to move to the mainland and to use my hotel experience and skillset to elevate the services and amenities we provide to the meetings industry.     

What are the qualities that women bring to venue management that empower them to excel at their jobs?

Women are very nurturing by nature and great collaborators. We often think outside the box when finding solutions. There are many moving parts to managing a facility, and it takes an entire team to execute meetings and events successfully. Women multi-task well—we multi-task in our personal lives and it just comes naturally to do it at work. It’s a skill set that I feel women do without effort and do well. 

While gender diversity in the leadership roles within the events industry has been shifting in a more equitable direction, what are the biggest challenges of being a female leader in a historically male-dominated industry?  

One of the biggest challenges is self-doubt, not standing up for what you are worth in compensation. Women leaders in this industry don’t make the same wages as males in the same positions, [and] although it’s getting better, we still have a long way to go to equality in this area. Women need to learn not to doubt their ability or self to ask for the compensation they are worth and work hard to deserve. 

During your time managing the Hawaii Convention Center, what have been your biggest successes that you’re most proud of?

I am proud that the center was able to continue to operate and serve the Hawaii community during the pandemic. We worked with state agencies to quickly provide temporary space that allowed for additional staffing and social distancing, while delivering important public services such as unemployment claims processing for the Hawai‘i Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR), COVID-19 contact tracing for the Hawai‘i Department of Health, vote counting for Hawai‘i’s Office of Elections and Hawai‘i Bar Exams for the Hawai‘i State Judiciary.

With our No. 1 goal throughout the pandemic to ensure the health and safety of our staff, guests and communities, we had to quickly adapt to changing regulations and ensure that we were able to keep our doors open for those who needed us the most. This included earning the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR Facility Accreditation for cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention, setting up temperature screening stations and entry points, and implementing daily health questionnaires for our staff, as well as social-distancing and PPE policies. As restrictions eased, we opened more spaces to larger groups and took additional time to work with event organizers on protocols. We also took advantage of this quieter time to complete maintenance and improvement projects.

Prior to the pandemic, one of the largest key initiatives I spearheaded was to look for ways to increase our building’s occupancy. I saw the opportunity for our venue to host offshore sporting events like volleyball, basketball and indoor soccer (futsal). I put a business plan together with two years of research and was given the approval by Hawaii Tourism Authority to purchase $1.1 million in sporting equipment in 2016. Over the past few years since, we invested in our sports courts, the number of sporting tournaments that we have hosted has since doubled, and we are excited to welcome events back at the Center this year.

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the past two yearsboth professionally and personally? 

Stick to your values and stay true to who you are, morally and ethically. I’ve never compromised that to get somewhere or to get something. I believe in always doing what’s right and treating others with the utmost respect.

The past two years have been an unprecedented time of adapting and working with my team to find our “new normal.” Like many businesses, our facility has faced numerous challenges and is now focused on working to safely welcome visitors back with our legendary aloha spirit. 

On a personal level, I have learned just how vulnerable we are to tourism living on an island—no tourists, no jobs. Our economy and island came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, and it made me realize the importance of family, community and visitors to our day-to-day life, none of which can or should be taken for granted moving forward.  

What can the meetings and events industryand the women in itdo to help create more gender (and racial) parity in convention center leadership, as well as the industry at large?

It is important for women to support each other in this industry. We achieve more by working together and learning from each other’s ideas. Women leaders need to mentor other women in our industry to open opportunities to promote women. 

I am proud to lead an all-female leadership team at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. We all learn from each other and work together to ensure that we are constantly evolving and keeping relevant in our market. Our industry, product and customers evolve every day, and so should we.

What advice would you give to women in the events industry wishing to follow a leadership path? 

Be comfortable in being uncomfortable because that is a great way for you to learn and discover your strengths and to grow. Be open to opportunities that allow you to push and challenge yourself, and surround yourself with people who can mentor and support you throughout your journey. Find female mentors to help you on your journey and career path so you don’t make the same mistakes or go through the same struggles they did. Mentorship is also a give and take, and as a leader in our industry, I am always learning and looking at ways to be a better me.

Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to lpsavas@tsnn.com or ltenny@tsnn.com.

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