When Monica Smith landed her first job, she didn’t realize how it might hint at her future career.

“I started working in the hospitality industry when I was 14 as a busgirl at an upscale restaurant in Cleveland, (Ohio),” said Smith, CEO and president of the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“When I was a young girl, I knew I would probably be the first person in my family to go to college,” said the 39-year-old Smith. “I really had an inkling that it was going to be business related, but at that time I thought I was going to become a CPA or be an accountant. That all kind of changed.”

Smith’s career led her to various positions within the hospitality industry -- from a back-of-the-house account executive to hotel sales positions and to work at a CVB in California. She has been in Macon’s top CVB spot since 2010 following longtime CEO Janice Marshall’s retirement.

Smith’s family moved to Cleveland from Jacksonville, Fla., when she was about 7. Growing up in the inner city, Smith focused on getting good grades and was involved in church and youth activities.

At nearly 5 feet 11 inches tall, Smith played high-school basketball, and while she didn’t play when she went to Cornell University, she was one of three female managers for the men’s basketball team.

“I’m pretty much into basketball,” she said. “I don’t watch as much as my husband and sons, but I watch my fair share.”

Besides being team manager during college, she worked in the accounting office at the Statler Hotel connected to Cornell, which is somewhat of a training hotel for students.

At one point, Smith also worked in one of the campus libraries.

Some jobs teach Smith what she didn’t want

After graduating from college, Smith went to work as an assistant controller trainee at the Cleveland Marriott Downtown, but after a year realized “I did not have the level of interaction with customers that I wanted.”

So she reached out to mentors and was advised to consider a sales career.

After the family moved to Columbus, she landed her first sales job at the Ramada Inn near the airport.

“That was the best job I ever had, and the worst job I ever had in terms of everything that you could possibly do wrong in managing a hotel happened at that property,” Smith said.

During her year there, the hotel went through three different management companies and five general managers.

“The best part was I learned everything that you could possibly do wrong, and sometimes that’s the best lesson,” she said.

The job gave Smith her first exposure of working with a CVB, and her next job at the Greater Columbus Convention Center led to even more CVB contact.

Because her husband, Andre, changed jobs, the couple moved back to Cleveland, and she was hired as an account executive at the Cleveland CVB.

“To me, that was the best opportunity,” she said. “It was a chance to come home and sell my city.”

While she enjoyed the CVB work, she temporarily was lured away when she was asked to be part of the pre-opening sales team at a new InterContinental luxury hotel opening in Cleveland.

But after a couple of years, “I knew my heart was still with the CVB, and that was probably where I would spend the majority of my career.”

The couple decided in mid-2004 to move to California so Andre Smith could pursue a film career.

Monica Smith took a sales job with the Newport Beach CVB and in two years climbed her way to a position as vice president of sales.

She was recruited by the CVB in Pasadena, Calif., when the city was building a new $100 million convention center, and wanted someone with convention experience to lead the sales team.

“That was another great opportunity to be part of a new development,” she said. “We had great success despite the economy.”

During some changes in the staff there, Smith basically was leading the CVB. She decided she was ready to lead her own team when the job in Macon became available.

And, after the birth of her third child, it was time to be closer to family, because most of her family still lives in Jacksonville.

Smith impressed Macon search committee

Before Smith made the jump to Macon, she did her homework.

“What I looked at was: What were Macon’s assets?” she said. “When I looked at the convention center, the hotel inventory, the attractions, the colleges and universities, a lot of that was pretty similar to what I had in the market in Pasadena.”

Both cities have a strong religious presence and colleges, as well as a diversity of attractions, she said.

“All of the pieces are here that I’m used to having to sell a community,” she said.

Smith was not the only one who decided Macon was a good place for her.

“Of all the candidates (for the CVB job), (Smith) just walked in the room, and immediately she had a presence about her,” said Theresa Robinson, chairwoman of the CVB’s CEO search committee.

“She had great experiences as a professional, she knows marketing and is very strong with budgets and numbers,” Robinson said. “It was a consensus for the panel that she was the No. 1 candidate.”

Even with her research, Smith said there was one thing she didn’t realize before coming to Macon.

“I have always felt that people always take their hometown for granted,” she said. “But it was surprising to me how much Maconites take it for granted and don’t see the true value in the beauty and the assets. Not all people feel that way, but that was the thing that took me by surprise. We have a lot to be proud of here.”

Smith leads 22 full and part-time employees, including workers at the I-75 Welcome Center.

“I see us as cheerleaders for the community, and it’s not always easy,” she said.

In an effort to engage people who live here, particularly those who come in contact with the public such as restaurant workers and store clerks, the CVB helped create the “I Am Macon” program along with several other agencies in town.

“It encourages people who live here to be ambassadors,” she said.

A visitor could be a CEO scouting for a new location, a person who plans meeting and conventions or someone looking for a place to hold a family reunion, she said.

“We don’t know who they are, so we should make sure we make them all feel welcomed and comfortable,” she said.

One of her goals is to have 500 people complete the “I Am Macon” training program by January, she said.

Also, a recent partnership was formed between the Macon Arts Alliance’s Ovations 365 -- a centralized calendar for cultural events -- and CVB’s event listings. The partnership makes it easier to promote events for both agencies.

One of the challenges Smith said she faces is the need to replace the rooms lost when the 298-room Ramada Plaza closed more than two years ago.

Even with the 220-room Macon Marriott City Center hotel adjacent to the Wilson Convention Center, Macon needs “another comparable hotel that could be used as overflow,” she said.

“Most of the meeting planners are looking for availability and accessibility, and obviously they are looking at affordability and we are very affordable,” she said.

Conventions in Macon have been fairly steady for the past couple of years with 62 bookings in 2010-2011, and 77 bookings in 2011-2012. So far this year, 42 conventions have been booked.

When Smith came aboard, the reporting was changed to track only conventions directly supported by CVB convention sales and services efforts, she said.

Smith said she intends to continue to educate the community about the importance of tourism “and its positive impact on Macon and Bibb County.”

“I am a salesperson at heart, so it’s always a goal of mine and the team that we maintain an aggressive sales effort in order to increase both the number of visitors, the number of conventions and convention attendees coming to Macon as well as the number of group tours,” she said.

The CVB will be “working very hard to improve awareness of Macon as a tourism destination outside of the Southeast,” she said.

Nearly three years after Smith arrived in Macon, Robinson said the decision to hire her was a good one.

“She’s very smart, very intuitive and she’s not afraid to speak up,” Robinson said. “She’s good at forming relationships with people and organizations. ... I think she’s done a great job.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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