“At some point, I figured out that I loved travel,” said Karl Pietrzak, vice president of convention sales at VisitPittsburgh, during a phone interview in February. “And once I figured out I could actually have a career in that industry, I thought that was interesting.”
Pietrzak, like many others working in destination sales and marketing, first parlayed his love of travel into a job by working in hospitality. In college at Penn State, he started by working for a hotel at the front desk. After graduating in 1992, he continued working in the category for 11 years in various sales positions mostly within the Hilton and Starwood families of properties, eventually becoming the assistant director of sales at the Pittsburgh Hilton.
“Working at hotels was great because you come from this world that you need to be well acquainted with both to sell and to work with hotel partners on the destination side,” said Pietrzak.
Switching to work for Pittsburgh’s visitors bureau in 2003 was a natural transition for Pietrzak. “Even when I worked for hotels, I always sold the destination first and then the hotel rooms,” he said.
Now vice president of convention sales at VisitPittsburgh, Pietrzak puts his decade of hospitality experience to work for a city that he’s as passionate about living in as he is about selling. Like many midsize cities in the country, Pittsburgh has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the past decade, one that Pietrzak has not only witnessed but also helped shape by telling the city’s story to the world.
“When I came into this role in 2003, there was this perception people had of Pittsburgh of being a smoky steel town; now we are a city on the rise, and people are seeing the things that really make the town so great,” he said.
What are some of those things? Pietrzak is a Rolodex of factual knowledge about Pittsburgh and included on his list of forces shaping the city’s growth the exploding local food scene, the relatively low cost of living and a burgeoning technology and startup community.
“Kids used to go off to college and never come back,” said Pietrzak. “Now they’re staying here, getting jobs here and choosing to raise their families here.” Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google, Uber and Facebook have opened outposts in the city, and Pittsburgh retains young talent and continues to grow.
It’s that sort of energy, flavor, and dynamism that makes Pittsburgh attractive to meeting planners. “Any city that we compete with has hotels, has a convention center. So we try to think about what really sets Pittsburgh apart,” said Pietrzak.
In January, Pietrzak’s team and the city had a marquis moment as it hosted the Professional Convention Management Association’s (PCMA’s) annual conference. A sort of holy grail for destination marketers, the gathering of 4,000-plus meeting planners led to immediate new business and hundreds of new qualified leads for future events. Many planners walked away raving that it was the best PCMA conference they had ever attended.
When he’s not with journalists or meeting planners, Pietrzak likes to play tourist in Pittsburgh himself, often with his two teenagers in tow. They’ll take the tram up the iconic Duquesne Incline for the best views of the city, go to a vintage arcade or catch a show at one of the city’s nine performing-arts theaters.
The best way to end the day, Pietrzak said, is by chowing down on a Primanti Bros. renowned steak sandwich topped with special sauce, french fries and coleslaw. It’s hearty, surprising and full of unexpected flavor, just like the city that made it famous.
Vice President, Convention Sales
Las Vegas, New Mexico
B.S. in hotel, restaurant and institutional management from Pennsylvania State University
Twelve years in hotel sales in Pittsburgh. Joined VisitPittsburgh in 2003 as a national sales director; promoted to senior national sales director in 2007, then vice president of convention sales in 2012
Tips from Karl Pietrzak
• Get as broad an experience as you can. We have a lot of interns come through, and I always say to go work at a hotel, work for a group that holds its own meetings, and get involved in all the local meeting planning
• Get involved and get to know
• Go on site visits and FAM trips — sometimes you need to see a place and ‘get it’ and be surprised, like Pittsburgh.