Victoria Clarke, a self-proclaimed CFA (come from away), grew up in southern Ontario. Her parents, both New Bruswickers, gave her summers and Christmases in Nashwaak Bridge with her beloved grandparents.
A well-known figure in the Saint John community who has developed a “love affair with the city”, Victoria was a Director with the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation before taking the lead at Discover Saint John (DSJ) two years ago.
As Executive Director, Victoria leads the city’s destination marketing organization, DSJ, whose mandate is to increase tourism revenues in Saint John by marketing the city’s unique and competitive tourism experiences to high potential markets. DSJ is a not-for-profit public-private corporation created in partnership with the City of Saint John, the Saint John Hotel Association and its industry members.
An active volunteer, Victoria is the provincial appointee on the NB Arts Board, vice-chair of Destination Marketing Association of Canada, co-host for the Empty Stocking Fund telethon and chair of the 2016-2017 United Way annual campaign.
I began my lively conversation with Victoria by asking her to explain the mandate and purpose of Discover Saint John…
A: We bring people here – to Saint John. If they’re already visiting, we work to get them to stay longer than one night. We’re a destination marketing organization. That means that we create a brand and identify pillars that make us stand apart from other destinations.
We are the sales driver for meetings and convention sales, sports tourism, festivals and events (both incubation and growth), travel trade (bus tours), visitor information and visitor experience. We also play a supporting role on the cruise file.
Q: Tell me more about the cruise file.
A: Cruise is big and it’s sexy. Seeing “the Empire State building” pulling up alongside our small city is pretty darn impressive and having 3,500 people disembark out into the city to then go on shore excursions and shop and eat. It’s mind-blowing.
The average citizen may not notice when there’s a convention in town. We’ve had conventions in here of 1,500 people. You wouldn’t know. They come in the airport. They go in the hotel. They’re in the convention centre. They go back to the airport and go home. They’ve made a huge economic impact on SJ but the man-on-the-street may never cross paths with a conference delegate.
[Tweet “Conventions make a huge economic impact on Saint John. – Victoria Clarke”]
Q: What generally held ideas do you like to demystify around tourism in Saint John?
A: That it’s a passive activity. That people just happen to be driving through and decide to stay. If you’re looking at tire traffic to Saint John – nobody’s passing by. They might be passing by Fredericton or Moncton, but they’re not “passing by” Saint John. You’ve come out of your way to be here.
[Tweet “Visitors come out of their way to be here.- Victoria Clarke”]
Q: What makes Saint John a destination?
A: Every city has hotel rooms, convention spaces, stadiums. What’s different? Our history in Saint John is different. Our walk-ability – everything is close. We’re weatherproof – we have a pedway system, it’s accessible if you have mobility issues.
But the biggest differentiator – it’s people.
Sean “Hula” Yoro, who painted the mural in Pugsley slip remarked that SJ is the only community where he has felt the “Muhalo” island welcome that he grew up with in Oahu.
[Tweet “The biggest differentiator in Saint John? It’s people. – Victoria Clarke”]
Q: How do you focus your marketing?
A: We have to be laser-focused, we have a limited budget and focus on ROI. We research which communities or business profiles have the highest probability and possibility of visiting us – so for the leisure market we concentrate on New Brunswick.
Q: So, you are focused on having New Brunswickers come to Saint John?
A: If we’re talking about leisure marketing, we aim at New Brunswick. If we’re talking about meetings and conventions marketing, which is corporations and associations, they’re headquartered predominately in Ottawa. My sales staff completely focuses on those markets.
For sports tourism, it’s about having connections to municipal/regional/ provincial and national bodies.
Q: How are you putting Saint John on the radar for visitors?
A: It’s about cracking the door open. It’s about looking at different ways to get people’s attention – vibrancy. Sean’s mural, supporting events that are putting SJ on the map – AREA 506, Tall Ships, Fundy Fan Fest and Moonlight Bazaar.
Or for example, our sales manager invited comedian James Mullinger to join us for an event in Ottawa to deliver our #SaintAwesome message to 1,000 meeting planners. I could have delivered our message – it would have been one more destination message in a sea of destination messages. He delivered our tourism story – our words – but through his lens, his voice and his ‘Jamesisms’. He performed and people listened.
[Tweet “James Mullinger performed and people listened. – Victoria Clarke”]
Q: So you are out there pitching the love and passion for your community and you say you’re not a career tourism person?
A: I’ve worked in IT, briefly on radio and in philanthropy. I thought leading a team that was promoting a city that I loved – actually paralleled the work I was doing at the hospital. At SJRHF I loved and fully believed in the work, and in the doctors and nurses that were doing that work, and was successful. I believed that I could bring that same passion to selling this city.
Now, what I couldn’t have imagined was the team I joined. I walked onto a staff and team of funders that are just as focused and passionate as we are. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: If I believe in your work and I trust that you are being productive and transparent and honest, I’m not going to be directing you – I’ll be cheering you on. I’m going to get out of your way.
Each person on my team is an expert in their respective field. They need oversight, encouragement and barrier-clearing, and those are all things that I love to do.
Q: What’s your philosophy on leadership?
A: I don’t need to be the expert. When you don’t need to be the expert, you’re open to other people’s opinions and points of view – you get to take them in and synthesize them.
[Tweet “When you don’t need to be the expert, you’re open to other people’s opinions. – Victoria Clarke”]
Q: How do you deal with having such a public role in the community, especially people who may be critical of your projects or events?
A: I feel protective of my team and my funders and our choices. But I look criticism right in the face. Coming from philanthropy, if somebody had feedback on one of our projects or one of our events, I would welcome them to join us as a donor, board member or event volunteer and be part of the solution. If you have criticism for me, I invite you to come and sit in my office and I hope you will leave with a different point of view. I solve problems.
Q: How would you finish the following sentence,“A leader’s job is to . . .“
A: A leader’s job is to elevate. A leader’s job is also, as I said before, to clear hurdles wherever possible. I like to lead from behind and push my people out front and remind them of what their strengths are.
[Tweet “A leader’s job is to elevate – and clear hurdles wherever possible. – Victoria Clarke”]
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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, Sept 2, 2017.