Rita McClenny is no longer the understudy at Virginia Tourism Corp.January 30, 2013 6:00 AM
by Martha Steger
Photo by Clement Britt
Not many state tourism executives can speak from as much firsthand experience with Hollywood celebrities as Rita D. McClenny, the president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp (VTC).
Appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell at the Richmond opening of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in November, McClenny spent more than 20 years as director of the Virginia Film Office, a division of VTC. She was chief recruiter in bringing filmmakers to Virginia, though she always describes the job as “a team effort.”
Her work at the film office put her in touch with some of the biggest names in movies (“Tom Hanks is as nice a guy as you’d ever want to know,” she says) and gained her recognition. She received the 2010 Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University.
During her tenure at the film office, McClenny took two turns as interim head of VTC, in 2002-03 and again seven months last year. She replaces former tourism chief Alisa Bailey, who returned to her native West Virginia in April. McClenny’s successor at the film office is Andy Edmunds, who had worked with her for 15 years.
As she begins leading Virginia’s efforts to attract “more visitors staying longer and spending more money,” McClenny will preside over an annual budget of $19 million and a staff of 117 full-time employees.
While leading the film office, she served as vice president of industry relations for the tourism agency. That position allowed her “to develop long-term relationships with people and companies who invest in Virginia and see Virginia as a great place for business,” she says.
McClenny’s appointment has been greeted with rave reviews. “I have worked with Rita for years and know of no one who is more passionate about promoting our state,” says Cal Simmons, an Alexandria-based e-publisher and corporate technology executive who has served as VTC’s board chairman for the past eight years.
Terry Stroud, COO of Richmond’s In Your Ear recording studios and board member of the Virginia Production Alliance, describes the announcement of McClenny’s appointment at the Byrd Theatre in November as “a poetic moment.”
“I’ve watched Rita grow and seen the industry embrace her,” he says. “She can walk with credibility anywhere in tourism, film, wine and related fields. Those of us in the private sector know we have to do the heavy lifting with the General Assembly — and we’re fine with that, but she has represented the industry well in legislative matters for years [as VTC vice president of industry relations].”
The youngest of five children — with two brothers and two sisters — who grew up on a Southampton County farm, McClenny says she learned early “to stake my position and negotiate to win!”
The winner of tennis trophies in high school and college, she is a lover of the outdoors, who considers herself “an adventurer.”
Virginia Business interviewed McClenny at her Richmond office on the 19th floor of Riverfront Plaza overlooking the James River. The following is an edited transcript.
Virginia Business: Were you the first black woman in the U.S. to head a state’s film office?
McClenny: I was not the first African-American woman to lead a state film office. That distinction belongs to the Washington, D.C., film commissioner.
VB: Why did you leave the Virginia Film Office (VFO) as director in 1995 for Pat Robertson’s Family Channel and return in ‘96?
McClenny: I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, but soon after I took the job, the company was sold to what became ABC Family (Saban Entertainment). It ceased business in Virginia and moved to California, which I didn’t want to do.
VB: What in your management of the VFO best prepared you to take on the chief executive job for the Virginia Tourism Corp.?
McClenny: I had to make many decisions based on what was best for a locality or property owner and would always keep in mind what was in the long-term interest of Virginia. Thinking about the future and what will serve our commonwealth is an important part of my decision matrix.
VB: What is the economic impact ― or return on investment ― of tourism in Virginia? How are activities such as dining by local residents separated from the same activities by travelers for purposes of calculating economic impact?
McClenny: The 2011 economic impact of tourism was $20 billion and $41.3 billion in state and local taxes. The industry employed 207,000 Virginians. The ROI for tourism is 1:5 for every dollar invested in tourism marketing by the VTC. The U.S. Travel economic model used for calculating tourism’s impact factors local residents’ spending separately and thus doesn’t count those expenses for purposes of ROI.
VB: Who were your mentors and role models when you were in high school, college and the workplace? Were any particular extracurricular activities an asset in preparing you for the world beyond schooling?
McClenny: My parents are my heroes. I grew up with animals of all kinds ― horses, cattle, cats and dogs. I love the game of polo, and while I learned to play as an adult, my early years of riding made me fearless ― and that’s certainly a necessary attribute in the game of polo. I think that attribute has contributed to my willingness to take calculated risks ― something important in any kind of leadership role. For example, in early 1995 when Pat McMahon [state tourism director who died in December 1998] determined the VTC was going to have a presence on the Internet and see how it resonated with consumers, it turned out to be a worthwhile risk with a strategic advantage in reaching our audience. Virginia’s tourism website (http://www.virginia.org) was held up as the model at the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism in October 1995. We have to be willing to go into new spaces to learn what works.
VB: You entered Vassar College after high school but chose to transfer to Fisk University. What led to that decision, and what was your field of concentration?
McClenny: I treasure both of my college experiences. They were very different but made me realize how much I was really like everyone else. At Vassar, I didn’t see myself [because of the small number of black students], and that provided the opportunity to look deeper inside of me. A Northern sensibility also existed there that was hard to explain but was helpful later in my understanding of people generally. I have a BS in economics from Fisk University and studied a lot of management and business courses. I played on the Fisk traveling tennis team.
VB: What advice do you give young people who are interested in careers in the film industry or in tourism?
McClenny:Study and learn the art of listening. Get along with people ― that art is a treasured gift. Have a vision and be willing to stay with your purpose.
VB: What did you enjoy most about your film position? Do you expect that to be about the same in your tourism position?
McClenny: I enjoyed every project’s uniqueness in the story being told and the fact that the needs of every production were different. I expect tourism will bring many similar challenges and opportunities.
VB: Corporate incentives offered by governments are presently being closely scrutinized in many states. Do you think Virginia has gotten a good bang for its buck with its incentives for filmmakers?
McClenny: I point to “Lincoln,” where a $64 million economic impact resulted from the state’s investment of $3.5 million; and to “John Adams” — a $100 million project — with $80 million spent in Virginia — which resulted from our investment of $1.5 million. Virginia has fared better than other states offering 25 to 30 percent tax rebates because our incentives are performance-based, and companies don’t get their money until their performance has been evaluated. As a result, Virginia’s performance has been better.
VB: Are incentives available for tourism businesses, too?
McClenny: Yes, through the Tourism Development Financing Program passed by the 2010 General Assembly. The first of its kind in the nation, it’s somewhat complex. You can get the details at our web site (http://www.vatc.org/TDFinancingProgram/).
VB: You have said the People’s Republic of China (Taiwan) is now Virginia’s No. 1 international tourism market. How did it catapult itself into that position over Germany, the U.K. and Japan?
McClenny: This is due to the visa-waiver granted last year. There’s a lot of pent-up demand because prior to this, the [citizens of Taiwan] had to go in person to get their visas — often traveling to remote locations. The new program makes personal visitation much easier for them.
VB: Did the VTC and (Virginia Film Office) have a role in the governor and first lady’s mission [to Taiwan] in 2011?
McClenny: Yes — and last fall a Central Chinese Television production crew came over to shoot a documentary, “Glamorous Virginia,” which will eventually air here. Richmond’s public-television station, WCVE-23, was very involved.
VB: You have also said that Virginia’s chief tourism competitors are our neighboring states because they offer similar product, such as beaches, mountains, history and theme parks. How does Virginia set itself apart?
McClenny: We find activities in our product mix that we pair together, such as small-town experiences and visiting wineries. We offer extraordinary itineraries, turning your two-day trip into four days and connecting them through themed components.
VB: The VTC recently commissioned a million-dollar research study by PriceWaterhouse. Isn’t that amount of money for research considered extraordinary? What can Virginia taxpayers expect to get from such a study?
McClenny: The state tourism plan was a direct result of the Governor’s Jobs Commission, and that result went to 1,300 stakeholders who were interviewed across Virginia. They saw the need for a comprehensive tourism plan. We put together a steering committee including attractions and owners of tourism companies as well as tourism professionals, all led by our Partnership Marketing division. One of the things PriceWaterhouse does is development, and it helped build a competitive analysis of how each Virginia region could succeed with its own tourism development plan.
As a result, Virginia got 10 plans ―nine regional ones and a statewide plan. It’s a minimum of a five-year blueprint for development and growth. As a state, we moved from number nine in 2010 to number eight in 2011 in the ranking of visitors’ expenditures among the 50 states, but we don’t foresee moving further up — to number seven and beyond — without new product. That will be a major focus.
VB: You’re known for working long hours. What do you do to relax and have fun?
McClenny: I love to shoot sporting clays. It’s very relaxing because you can’t focus on anything other than the target in front of you. It’s a fun group sport for women as well as for mixed teams. I also enjoy sitting on the front porch at home [close to Wakefield] with my mother, who’s 90, and the rest of the family [10 nieces and nephews]. It’s nice just to be quiet there, too, and enjoy the familiarity of fond memories.
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