Cathie Anderson

Visit California chief earns spot in travel industry hall of fame

Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, delivers the keynote address at 2016 Outlook Forum in San Francisco. Outlook Forum is the largest annual gathering of the state’s travel and tourism industry.
Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, delivers the keynote address at 2016 Outlook Forum in San Francisco. Outlook Forum is the largest annual gathering of the state’s travel and tourism industry. Visit California

Visit California CEO and Grass Valley resident Caroline Beteta will take her place beside such travel industry giants as Walt Disney, Peter Ueberroth and J.W. Marriott Jr. when she is inducted in November into the U.S. Travel Hall of Leaders.

The U.S. Travel Association has been recognizing individuals for exceptional contributions to the industry since 1969. Beteta will be inducted alongside Christopher Nassetta, the president and CEO of Hilton Worldwide.

Hotel industry veteran Jeff Senior, the marketing manager behind such brands as Hotel del Coronado and Vail Mountain Lodge, described Nassetta as a legend in the industry and said it’s very appropriate that Beteta would be recognized at the same ceremony. He pointed to the spadework she did in 2012 to establish a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and the nation’s travel industry, known as Brand USA, to market the United States to the world as a tourism destination.

“I’ve been in the industry for four decades … so I’ve had an up-close and personal look at what great looks like, and Caroline deserves a seat at that table, if not at the head of the table,” Senior said. “Brand USA is a force to be reckoned with because of a great business model. I’m not certain they (Brand USA) would have survived had Caroline not personally … taken the helm. She was the adult in the room. She was the steadying influence who never lost sight of the bigger picture and what needed to get done.”

That effort, Beteta said, was essential for the Golden State: “With California being such a large tourism economy – we’re the No. 1 travel destination in the United States – it became important that the U.S. had to succeed also as a travel destination and that there had to be a knowledge base and an appreciation for why travel matters among our elected officials so that we could create opportunities and eliminate barriers to travel.”

In the early ’90s, Beteta worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., before returning to her native California to become director of tourism marketing at the California Trade and Commerce Agency. Longtime ski industry leader Bob Roberts recalled meeting Beteta, then in her 20s, shortly after she’d taken on her new role.

Roberts, who led the California Ski Industry Association for 40 years, said Beteta told him she loved skiing and had learned at Heavenly Mountain Resort, so when his agency was preparing for a big media event on the East Coast, he asked her to make the pitch. Beteta, he said, really generated a buzz that year, and he became a mentor.

Around that time, California was amid a recession, he said, and Gov. Pete Wilson called travel industry leaders together and told them: “Your industry, without a whole lot of infrastructure, could actually help turn things around if tourism would get organized and market the state and not just Disneyland and Hyatt and your little slice. He said, ‘I’m going to tell you what I will do. I’m going to leave the state funding (for tourism) in here ... to keep the office going, but I’m going to task you guys with coming up with some type of matching program.”

Industry leaders formed a steering committee that included Roberts as co-chair and Beteta as a member. They came up with the idea of creating a marketing organization for travel similar to the agricultural commodity boards that market dates, raisins, milk and other products to the world. The travel- and tourism-related businesses voted on and passed a referendum to assess themselves a fee and use the money they generated to market California as a travel destination.

The effort required legislation and years of political negotiation, Roberts said, and Beteta played a key role in getting the work done to establish the agency that would become Visit California. The U.S. travel industry ended up using the same concept, Roberts said, to fund Brand USA.

Amid establishing Visit California, Beteta, Roberts said, had the opportunity to be appointed head of the California tourism office, but she came to him and several other trusted advisers and told them that she felt the post should go to someone with more experience. They gave her the name of a potential candidate, who ultimately won favor with the governor.

When Visit California got up and running 20 years ago, the board conducted a nationwide search for a leader, and it was Beteta who won the job. She still maintains the confidence of the travel industry, Senior said, recently winning approval from businesses to significantly boost Visit California’s budget by doubling their assessment.

“As you get farther and farther away from California – Chicago, New York and, of course, overseas – it’s like Coca-Cola or any other retail product. Just because you have awareness and you’re in demand, that doesn’t mean Coca-Cola stops marketing,” Beteta said. “We are a consumer product, and people have choices.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee