By Frances Moffett, HSMAI Editorial Content Director
When Alice Diaz was in grammar school, she would venture into the neighborhood travel agency, owned by a family friend, and organize all their travel brochures. While, at the time, her career ambitions solely consisted of a dream of working in Rockefeller Center, rearranging those brochures helped put her on a path toward a career where she’d eventually make a major impact.
“[Back then] at that travel agency, that’s when I started to understand how big the world was and how many places there were to visit,” Diaz says. “That’s where I got my first understanding of this industry and what travel was all about.”
Throughout her 30-plus years of experience in travel public relations, Diaz — who retired in 2019 — has helped transform the image of Mexico City and Greater Fort Lauderdale, promoted tourism to the Bahamas, Thailand, Costa Rica and Panama, and launched Atlantis, Paradise Island, as part of the M. Silver Associates team. Over the course of her 19 years at Weber Shandwick, Diaz led the Travel & Lifestyle practice and, along with team members and former leader Rene Mack, executed multiple award-winning campaigns. Her work led her to receive this year’s HSMAI Winthrop W. Grice Lifetime Achievement Award for Public Relations. Here, she discusses how she got her start in this profession, how the industry has evolved over the years, and her advice for new professionals entering hospitality.
HSMAI: How did you get your start in hospitality?
Alice Diaz: I was a marketing major in college, finishing my degree, when I was hired by PR agency M. Silver Associates. At the time, they wanted a marketing assistant to help them market the agency and to get recognition for the work they were doing, as well as much more widespread recognition for their context in the travel industry. I didn’t know much about PR, but soon I started working with clients and doing the agency work, and I knew this was it for me. I wanted to grow and learn and be able to travel the world.
How do you think the industry has changed since you started your career?
One of the biggest fundamental changes is that decisions are more in the hands of consumers. When I started, travel agents were the gatekeepers to a lot of travel opportunities, destinations, and packages that people could purchase. It was very likely that people would spend a Saturday or Sunday with a travel agent deciding where their family vacation was going to be next. Now, direct-to-consumer channels make every single place around the world accessible to anyone. Not only that, but now everybody has access to that consumer’s opinion as well, and that word of mouth and firsthand awareness help define the vacation experience people want.
Much has changed due to the pandemic as well, especially in terms of leadership and employees’ expectations of their leaders. What do you think it takes to be an effective leader in today’s challenging times?
I think good leaders are always hands on and tenacious. They’re not just a name and a position — they understand a problem and are willing to get dirty with the work and facilitate it. At my agency, I still loved doing the work and would be very involved in the programming for the clients, not just with the executive decisions. Certainly, there can be new technology to learn and new techniques to deploy, but leaders should understand all the different facets that you can bring to a client and be able to actually step in to dedicate their heart and minds to execute if needed to help teams succeed.
What is your advice for new professionals in the industry?
Look at the total value of travel and tourism. It’s not just someone getting on an airplane to go on vacation. It is everything from the local markets to the restaurateurs to the experiences that enrich individuals’ lives. I think the totality of travel is underestimated in terms of how big the industry is. I would also say to be open to the possibilities, try different things out, and recognize that this is a huge, evolving industry that is never dull and always thriving with something new.
What has been the highlight of your career?
The highlight has been working with destinations, especially the Bahamas — a country I worked with throughout my entire career. When you work with a destination, you get to really make a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s that local restaurant or that taxi driver, or it’s the person who decides to open a small lodge on the beach with their savings. They see the merits of the work you’re doing and the media attention you’re bringing to help make their business successful. That will always be one of the best parts of my job — being able to make that difference in people’s lives and meeting them and understanding their life story. That, to me, was huge and it continues to be.