Public relations and communications specialist Vicki Johnson was Director, Worldwide Sales and Travel Ops PR at Disney Destinations, spending some 13 years within the Disney organization until recently founding her own company, Vicki Johnson Communications. Blooloop industry insider Chad Emerson spoke with Johnson about the communications business and her unique career path.
By Chad Emerson (14th October 09)
Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry.
Ironically, my start in the amusement industry came as the government agency I worked for was being sunset. In the mid-90s, I served as the Director of Communications for the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, promoting the U.S. as a destination around the world, but the organization ended up a Congressional casualty of the 1995 Contract with America. When USTTA was shuttered in the spring of 1996, I was blessed to land a position with Disney just days before the doors closed. It became my personal “What’s Next?” moment – “Vicki Johnson – now that Congress has eliminated your job, what are you going to do next?” … “I’m going to Disney World.”
What are some of the positions you’ve most recently held in the industry?
My positions within the travel and tourism industry, and the amusement industry, have centered on communications, marketing and public relations. I’ve worked on both the marketing and sales/distribution sides of the business, and understand their respective nuances, complexities and inter-dependencies. In addition to developing communications strategies to address consumer and B2B audiences, I’ve also gained experience with advocacy, government relations, industry relations, crisis communications and issues management.
Disney is known for its excellent leadership training. What are some ways that your training helped your own leadership efforts?
Disney’s reputation for grooming great leaders is certainly well-deserved. Much of that is due in large part to the culture and legacy Walt established.
While many of those qualities and core values are formally “taught” and emphasized in company-sponsored classes and forums, my biggest learnings came from observing a number of incredible Disney leaders like Judson Green, Diana Morgan, Lee Cockerell, Alice Norsworthy, Matt Ouimet, Bill Warren, Rilous Carter and Ken Potrock. These executives did far more than preach leadership at quarterly town halls: They modeled it in the way they conducted themselves, interacted with and engaged their teams, and connected with and gave back to their communities. My own personal approach to leadership is a patchwork of their outstanding living examples.
Tell us about a very rewarding leadership experience that you’ve had while working in the industry.
One of the most rewarding experiences in my 20+ years in the industry was orchestrating and promoting the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism. I take great pride in my role of helping to craft a vision for our industry that identified the challenges obstructing inbound tourism, and developed solutions to grow market share for the U.S. That experience came full circle at Disney as we played an active role in breathing new life into that vision and helped drive legislation and engage federal agencies to improve the visa process, enhance the welcome experience at our international airports and secure an appropriation to fund tourism promotion. That revived strategy will position the U.S. as an exciting and welcoming holiday destination for the rest of the world, and all sectors will reap huge dividends as a result.
What are some challenging leadership experiences for which that training stood you in good stead?
Both my public sector and private sector experiences have significantly shaped my career and approach to leadership. As a young communications director for the Florida Department of Commerce, I became a central spokesperson in the midst of the tourist murders that took place here in the early 1990s. And while we were fortunate that there was no Internet at the time, it was still one heck of a way to learn the nuances of crisis communication. We got some of it right, and we got some of it wrong, but the experience taught me compelling lessons regarding the importance of tracking potential issues, establishing good working relationships with the media, and forging industry partnerships – lessons that I still rely on today.
Going forward, what new types of challenges do you see facing the industry that leadership training could help prepare for?
Organizations have to come to grips with the fact that our business is more complex and challenging than it’s ever been, and that’s not going to change even when the economy rebounds. Consumers today are different than they were just three years ago. They control the medium, and that requires us to change how we market and sell to them. It affects how we respond to their concerns. And it implores us to offer the utmost in customer service.
Some smaller companies might be quick to think this gives even more leverage to the bigger industry players, but the reverse is actually true. This new era levels the sales and marketing playing field for those companies that embrace the change and develop strategies to reach consumers how and when they prefer. I am working with clients to develop strategies that harness social media, establish more engaging relationships with their guests and drive increased commitment.
Let’s say that it is a beautiful afternoon in Central Florida. How would you spend your perfect theme park day?
My ideal theme park day would take place next spring or summer. It would involve my family of four (husband and two girls ages 14 and 10) and touch all three players – Disney, Sea World and Universal (preferably through teleportation to get it all in without the inherent traffic hassles). Morning would be spent marveling in the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal. Both girls love the JK Rowling series and we can’t wait to see how Universal brings Hogwarts to life.
Teleportation would next take us to SeaWorld to take our first crack at Manta, as well as re-visit Kraken, and check in on friends Clyde and Seymour. Our day would conclude at Epcot, where we’d race to experience my favorite ride, Soarin’, check-out a few Kim Possible missions around World Showcase, dine in Mexico or France, and round out the day with Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.
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