Written by Ravyn Cullor
Layla Forstedt saved the Fresno/Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau when it lost its funding, and now she’s leaving it in the hands of her colleagues.
Forstedt, who joined the bureau a little over 13 years ago, retired as president of the organization at the end of 2020. She had originally planned to retire last March, but stayed to help guide the organization through the pandemic.
She came from the hotel industry to be the director of sales and marketing, then served as vice president until she was called on to become CEO, Forstedt said.
At that time the city was facing a budget crisis and decided to defund the bureau, she said. The president at the time stepped down and the board asked her to stay on as president until they had to shut it down.
“I could see all over the United States that city and county governments couldn’t afford to keep funding visitors bureaus and chambers because they were having trouble, period,” Forstedt said. “I knew, coming from the hotel industry, a city as large as Fresno could not be without a destination marketing organization.”
Forstedt said she went about creating a tourism business improvement district to fund the bureau and, shortly after, became certified by the destination marketing international accreditation program so she could offer best practices to the hotels they serve. Two more staff members have since been accredited.
After educating hoteliers about why destination marketing was important and restructuring the bureau to function like a business, Forstedt said she has been making great improvements in the hospitality industry in Fresno and Clovis. Before 2020, she said she had the best occupancy rates of her career.
“Even as I gave my resignation I said ‘I enjoyed every day of my job in the last 13 years,’” Forstedt said. “Even though we went through some difficult times, I love what the organization does and means to our destination.”
Shawn Miller, chairman of the board for the Bureau, said Forstedt essentially founded the organization by creating the improvement district. He said the organization before her intervention is unrecognizable to the organization today.
Aside from securing funding, Forstedt said she worked to diversify the types of tourism the bureau was promoting, moving away from a convention focused model and building interest around sporting events and other local activities.
While Forstedt is still consulting and serving on other boards, Miller said she is leaving behind a strong team to guide the bureau and advocate for the Central Valley.
Lisa Oliveira, who is now serving as the interim president, said she didn’t just change the bureau, but was a great personal mentor for her as a strong female leader.
“I admire her strength while making difficult decisions and her ability to always work hard but play hard too,” Oliveira said. “She’s the kind of boss you hope to work for.”
Outside of rebuilding the bureau after defunding, Forstedt said she got to learn about activities and attractions in the Valley that she, as a local, never knew about. Learning about the area and sharing it with visitors and other locals was greatly rewarding, she said.
Forstedt is now working as a consultant for the bureau and for failing hotels across the country, she said. It allows her to use her expertise to turn businesses around and flexibility to spend time with family and travel.
Without the guidance of Forstedt, Oliveira and Miller said the bureau wouldn’t be the resource for the hospitality industry it is today.
“She saw the vision before there was one and knew how important tourism was for this area and the businesses touched by it,” Oliveira said. “There would not be a Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau without Layla Forstedt. I hope that is never forgotten.”