A longtime admirer of the Williamsburg area, Karen Riordan believes her passion for the Historic Triangle as a tourist will play a part in making her an effective leader as the new CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.
A self-proclaimed Bostonian, Riordan moved to Northern Virginia in 2005 on a work venture that should have lasted three months; instead, Riordan found her new home. With her husband, Michael, and now 12-year-old daughter, Grace — both history buffs — Riordan began taking trips to Williamsburg.
“I fell in love with the area,” Riordan said, explaining her family has visited all of the area’s tourist attractions, stayed in many hotels and patronized several pancake houses.
When the national search firm tasked with replacing former Alliance president and CEO Dick Schreiber – who took the role in 2005 – contacted Riordan, she said she thought the job was “too good to be true.” She knew the position would bring together various work aspects she enjoys and would afford her the opportunity to live in a destination she and her family love.
Growing up, Riordan lived in Lincoln, R.I., and her family bounced between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, visiting beaches on vacation, and sometimes skiing while visiting family in New Hampshire.
Riordan studied journalism and English literature at Boston College and marketing communications at Emerson College, she then spent 28 years working in advertising. She has focused on tourism advertising for the last 15 years, with organizations such as Colonial Williamsburg, Amtrak and Choice Hotels.
Just before coming to live in Williamsburg, Riordan was working as president of the Falls Church-based advertising agency SmithGifford, where she honed her skills working for a small business.
As a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, Riordan served as president and immediate past president of the DC Ad Club, a chapter of the American Advertising Federation. Her past experience leading boards and committees — including a humane society board — and SmithGifford contributed to Riordan’s belief she would serve well as CEO of the Alliance, which is a Board of Directors-governed nonprofit.
“This is a dream job for me,” Riordan said.
Riordan’s salary has not yet been made public. In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year for which tax data is available, Schreiber’s salary was $272,286.
Since her arrival, Riordan has been warmly welcomed by area businesses, and she says it is clear people love this area they call home. She plans on keeping the enthusiasm alive and getting people excited to expand business and tourism in the Historic Triangle.
Riordan said people may look at her background and assume she will focus on marketing and tourism. While she admits that is true, she said she also plans to focus on growing the business community for the benefit of everyone who works and lives in the Williamsburg area, leaning on her background in leading a small business.
With business and tourism in mind, Riordan has set a few goals for the Alliance: to be transparent, focused and accountable.
Riordan said it is very important to her that she hears input from all businesses in the area. Conflicting viewpoints are important, as is healthy discourse. Riordan said she wants to be open about the Alliance’s decisions and reasons for making them.
As for focus, Riordan said she will aim to pinpoint five or so goals rather than be pulled in too many directions as the Alliance works to boost business and tourism.
The Alliance’s business membership is currently around 750, but has been higher in the past. Riordan wants to engage additional businesses that have not considered membership, and reconnect with former members.
She said she wants to make clear the benefits to membership. If a business joins and does not attend events or get active on the board, they could question the benefits of being a member.
On the tourism side, Riordan said 2014-15 is a good time to grow “tried and true programs” to draw in visitors. The Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee is currently in the process of searching for a new advertising firm to create ads for the area.
While there are a number of opportunities to try new things this year with marketing in different geographical areas or trying to strengthen overnight visitation numbers during different times of year, Riordan said it is important not to risk investments in strategies that work. She is excited about seeing Arts Month and sports tourism continue to grow.
“We are a family-friendly destination, and we’re not doing our jobs if we’re not bringing in a lot of families,” Riordan said.