Karen Totaro, CFE, and IAVM make a great team. Her career in venue management has been successful, extensive, and diverse, and IAVM has been there for her every step of the way. A member since 1999, Totaro is now channeling the enthusiasm and industry knowledge from her years of involvement to lead the association as its 2015-2016 Chair.
Totaro, who is currently the General Manager of the Atlantic City Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, credits IAVM with directly influencing her career from when she graduated college in the early 1990s up through today. She said it was a helpful resource for her at a time when the industry was starting to grow and full-time venue staff positions were rare.
I knew I just needed a foot in the door, and then my drive and passion for the industry would help me do the rest. I attended my first regional meeting for IAVM and came back to work so excited to implement things I had learned. Then, I was given the chance to go to Venue Management School and came back on fire to learn more.
Her burn for knowledge, the industry mentors that she lovingly calls her “Yodas” and the association’s support resulted in a career that has spanned both coasts and venues of all sizes, not to mention IAVM leadership roles that include Region IV Director, Chair of the Education Council and seats on the Board of Directors and Board of Governors. She said a pivotal point was when she received an exciting phone call informing her that she was the association’s second vice-chair.
“I remember, to this day, that I was standing in my loft in Cincinnati, and I actually twirled because I was so thrilled! All of these roles, my multiple industry jobs, the obtaining of my CFE, and the industry educational programs I have attended and continue to attend over the years all played a significant role in me taking the gavel in Baltimore,” she said.
Totaro was attracted to a career in venue management because of the “adrenaline and energy” that comes with producing a successful event. Her first job in the industry was working at the Assembly Hall Arena at the University of Illinois. Her sister, Kathryn, who was two years ahead of her at the university, had a job working concessions there. The rest, as they say, is history.
“The camaraderie there was so rewarding, and to this day my best buds are people who were co-workers at that arena,” she said. “It is simply a fun career. I love going to work, and love the customer service and team-building aspects of the job.”
Her days, like those of most venue managers, are busy and diverse, so she relies on an updated Microsoft Outlook calendar, a tidy desk, and a to-do list to keep everything running smoothly. However, she said that an engaged staff and flexibility are her real secret weapons.
“Most of my days are heavy on meetings, but I do make an effort to engage with staff every day. I have to be visible, they have to know I care and that I see and hear them,” she said. “Days where I am only focused on that day are the best days. I am able to be in the moment, which is not easy. Priorities change every single day, so I stay flexible. Just go with the flow, don’t try and fight it.”
Mentorship is a top priority for Totaro. She said that it’s immensely rewarding for the parties involved and can be organized at all levels of commitment.
“Mentees are everywhere,” Totaro said. “About a month ago, I was talking to some dear friends in the industry, discussing whether our careers would have been different if we had a female mentor somewhere in our early years who could have helped with some of the unique situations we have found ourselves in. We came up with the idea of inviting eight young women in our industry to dinner on Saturday night of VenueConnect, our treat.”
She also recommends IAVM’s mentor program, which is open to experienced venue managers, and mentors many young men and women pursuing venue careers in Atlantic City. As she advised:
They have so much potential. I am excited to see where they go in their careers!
Totaro also had some words of wisdom for junior association members who want to follow in her footsteps:
Volunteer for everything, be it extra work at the venue you work at our helping out at an IAVM meeting you are attending. Find out who is coordinating events and offer up your services. You would be surprised how easy it is and how many people you meet by volunteering. At work you want to be seen as the ‘can do’ person – no whining, no sarcasm – just ready and able to jump in and help the team. You might not think your bosses notice or care, but I promise you they do.
Totaro also recommended to prioritize participation in IAVM programs, as she explained:
The program that set me ablaze was the Public Facility Venue Management School [now named Venue Management School], which is held for one week in June over two consecutive years. This is where you will clearly determine if this is the career for you or not. There are so many scholarships available, so there is no excuse to not at least try to go. My boss at the time let me attend since it was paid for by my regional scholarship. I just had to write a one-page essay on why I wanted to go.
The goals of IAVM members are at the forefront of Totaro’s planned initiatives, like a branding refresh, as she explained:
Branding does not simply mean a logo change, but a deep dive in understanding what IAVM is to our members and what they see it being to them in the future. Additionally, IAVM excels at education and networking opportunities. Our members say this is what they deem most significant and what they find most rewarding.
Totaro considers IAVM a “top tier” organization for networking, but that there is room to improve. She said a primary goal this year is to better serve IAVM’s Allied members:
The Allied members are seeing the value and recognizing the reward in IAVM participation. I have grown up in this industry with just as many close friends that are Allied members as Professional members, so I truly understand that while the needs may, at times, be different they are all equally important.
Streamlining IAVM programs is another priority, as she outlined:
We have VenueConnect, sector meetings, regional meetings, schools, and much more. Most associations our size produce just a handful of major events per year. They can capture the biggest audience and focus the dollars efficiently while meeting the members’ needs.
Because Totaro knows IAVM, and due to her deep history the association’s members know her, she is in an excellent position to determine the answers to some critical questions and position it for success.
“We have to dig deeper and learn what our members want,” she said. “For example, do they feel torn about trying to make budgets stretch to cover so many event options? Members can expect lots of discussion items and surveys to come as we try to move IAVM forward.”
Totaro is optimistic about her term leading a “fantastic” board, but plans to apply her personal philosophy to the role even if things become challenging.
“You will fail more times then you will succeed, and that is OK. It means you are trying. But the key is how you get up and what you do with what you learned,” she said. “Never be ashamed of your failures or (too humble about) your success. Wear them both as a badge of honor that says who you are and all you have done. I live my life as if something wonderful is always about to happen. And guess what? It usually does!”