By DAVE FIDLIN | Downtown News
For 30 years, it has loomed large on the San Diego Harbor skyline, serving as the host venue for everything ranging from the internationally known Comic-Con to gatherings for medical professionals to the auto show.
The events and visitors have been disparate since the doors of the San Diego Convention Center first opened in 1989, but Karen Totaro, chief operating officer, said there are some common threads that have solidified success over the past three decades and will help pave the way for similar results in the next trio of decades.
In an email interview with Downtown News, Totaro said she attributes three factors to the convention center’s strength, including an all-hands-on-deck, collaborative approach between the hundreds of staffers who work in a number of different professions.
But there are other external factors, Totaro said, that also have played into the venue’s popularity — not just locally, but across the U.S., and beyond.
“San Diego truly embraces a hospitality culture, and we work together to ensure a warm and inviting, action-packed and accessible place to be,” Totaro said. “The third key to our success is the fact we have so many repeat clients who have grown along with the convention center and look to San Diego as a second home.”
While Totaro and others within the convention center are pausing to commemorate the milestone, Totaro said officials are not resting on their laurels. A series of goals, she said, are on the horizon as the venue enters its next chapter.
“Our hope in the coming years is to give our clients what they need and what they repeatedly ask for, which is more space,” Totaro said.
Environmental stewardship, Totaro said, is another goal that has been emphasized more recently and will continue to be honed in on closely in the immediate future.
A goal among center organizers is to achieve LEED Platinum status in the near future through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
“We are a sustainable force in the San Diego community,” Totaro said. “We divert more than 60% of our waste on a regular basis, sort our own waste on-site and compost or donate all leftover food.”
While the convention center is oftentimes associated with San Diego’s Downtown, Totaro in the recent interview said she wanted to emphasize how the venue is intricately linked to all areas of the city.
“I would love for people to know more about the team that works at the convention center, as they represent almost every neighborhood and take such pride in the center,” Totaro said. “In fact, we have several generations of families, working side by side. Our average employee has worked here for 10 years, which is so rare in this industry.”
Barrio Logan resident Grace Zuniga is among the center’s 427 full-time and part-time employees. Zuniga, a member of the center’s cleaning services staff, has been working at the venue almost from the beginning; her 30-year anniversary is in February.
“I have met presidents and musicians,” Zuniga said in a statement provided to Downtown News. “I will never forget helping James Earl Jones find his way when he was lost in our building. The best part are the people who I have met who became my family of friends. That’s something you take with you.”
When asked what perhaps lesser-known facts she would like San Diegans to know about the convention center, Totaro pointed to the professionalism and commitment of the people who work at the venue, day in and out.
“I think if everyone knew how talented this team is, they would be truly proud of the work done by the people within the walls of the San Diego Convention Center,” Totaro said.
The hundreds of staffers who call the convention center their place of employment were recently treated to a thank-you luncheon.
A more visible, communitywide celebration is on the docket. The convention center is hosting a festive gala, Season’s Showcase: A Parade of Lights Watch Party, from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at the venue, 111 W. Harbor Drive.
“It is a free event, and the Port of San Diego is providing free parking underneath the convention center,” Totaro said. “We’ll feature live entertainment from several districts across San Diego and holiday-themed food and beverage.”
— Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.