RTD Person of the Year honoree: Jack Berry, president of Richmond Region Tourism

Jack Berry was sitting in his office at the Richmond Centre in 1992 when he received a surprise visit.

City Manager Robert C. Bobb came by to give Berry, then the convention center’s general manager, a mission he couldn’t refuse: Report the next day to the president’s office of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and ” ‘straighten that place out!’ ”

Berry, then 39, became interim president of the regional bureau, which was in turmoil from leadership resignations and a troubling audit.

“When I went in, that changed my whole career,” Berry said.

That’s not all that changed on his watch as leader of Richmond Region Tourism, the rebranded regional convention and marketing operation that he has led as president and CEO since late 1992.

His office sits in a 750,000-square-foot convention center complex, which was completed in 2003 as a model of regional cooperation and became the foundation for a steep rise in tourist visits – which resulted in record lodging tax collections of nearly $26.4 million in the most recent fiscal year.

Berry is often known locally as “Convention Jack” – to distinguish him from the “other Jack Berry,” the former Hanover County administrator and president of Venture Richmond who ran for mayor this year. He also has an alter ego his staff calls “Jacque,” who emerges when he needs to get tough in running a high-stakes, intensely competitive enterprise.

“He has been a very stable force, one who works well behind the scenes to bring it all together,” said former Henrico County Manager Virgil R. Hazelett.

The Richmond region has emerged as a hot destination for visitors around the country and world, driven in part by its restaurants and breweries, along with the revitalization of the city’s downtown core. Berry’s business includes attracting major clients to the convention center as well as marketing the city and surrounding region, which have become a mecca for sports tourism – youth soccer, baseball, volleyball, swimming and cheerleading.

Last year, the region reaped $2.2 billion in total revenue driven by tourist attractions including cycling’s UCI Road World Championships, volleyball and cheerleading competitions that draw big from the Northeast, and annual visits by Amway Corp. and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“That’s why it’s a peak year,” Berry said with characteristic enthusiasm.

The image of downtown Richmond has changed, both physically and in reputation. The expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical and academic campuses has brought more people downtown to work and live, and a vibrant art and food scene has given visitors more options for spending their money.

“It used to be shopping was driving the decisions – now it’s restaurants,” Berry said.

He also credits his staff of 27 with identifying trends early that have put the Richmond region in the forefront instead of bringing up the rear. For example, the region has cultivated and welcomed gay, lesbian and transgender visitors, and it has been quick to embrace social media and online advertising to reach people. It has expanded its emphasis on sports tourism.

Rather than the size of the staff, “it’s more the philosophical approach” that has boosted the business, he said.

But the biggest change Berry has seen has been in the psyche of the people who live here, who he said have become a force for marketing the region.

“The Richmonder has changed,” he said.

One person who hasn’t? Berry himself. Ever optimistic, cheerful and smiling, “Convention Jack” has never seen a glass half-empty. “I’ve always had fun,” he said.

***

JOHN F. “JACK” BERRY JR.

Position: president and CEO, Richmond Region Tourism

Hometown: Chicago

Family: wife Lynn; children John, Elizabeth and Rachel

***

IN HIS WORDS

What is your favorite book?

The “Harry Potter” series. The first book was released in 1997, when my children were 9, 8 and 7. Each night, I read one and only one chapter of the book, and they looked forward to our “reading time” together (as did I). As new books came out – we attended the midnight release parties at Barnes & Noble – and the kids could read independently, all three of them fought for time with the book. We had to divide the reading time into thirds.

The series gave each of them a great appreciation of reading that they still have today – and it gave me quality time with my children. I am indebted to J.K. Rowling.

Tell us about a small moment in your life with a big impact.

In May 1992, as general manager of the convention center, I attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Belle Isle pavilion. In front of an audience that included several City Council members, I openly challenged my boss, turned away and walked back across the pedestrian bridge. I felt quite satisfied that I told the truth.

I wasn’t fired, my boss soon left the position, and I became the president of the convention and visitors bureau – in part based on my integrity. Each spring, I teach the Junior Achievement ethics class day at a local high school. I share my story with the class and ask the students what they would do – and every year, I leave each classroom with a huge smile because the students, nearly unanimously, choose telling the truth.

What alternate profession or course of study would you choose?

College professor. Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit many campuses and speak on travel and tourism, and I greatly enjoy the atmosphere.

What is something about you that might surprise others?

Jim Ukrop, at the time my chairman at Richmond Region Tourism, sent me to the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado, an intensive school for leadership and strategic thinking. It is there where I developed an alter ego in management, where I become overly assertive, aggressive and take-no-prisoners in business. This behavior does not appear often, but it is recognized in the office by my team – who calls him “Jacque.”

What is something you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Play the piano. We have my mother’s piano, and I can read music, but I just do not have the time to practice.

If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?

Jesus Christ, and my answer is based upon a spiritual and historical reference. He changed the world forever. More is written about him than any person in history, and although it is interesting to read all of these interpretations based upon the writers’ perspectives, I really want to see him without those filters.

Tell us about a setback and what you learned from it.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1978. The company I worked for was looking for a business to purchase and for me to manage. I learned so much about myself from the move: First, I am an East Coast person. Second, I gained new respect and appreciation for the importance of family and friends. And third, if you find yourself in a bad situation or environment, do not complain – just move on and get away from it.

What is your greatest strength and weakness?

For a strength, it’s getting along with others. This has always been an asset for accomplishing the mission at hand.

But I am impatient with things that are wrong – and with incompetence and injustices – and the impatience is difficult to overcome. (I mask my external feelings. At least I hope I do!)

Who is your role model?

I have three mentors. Bill Riordan was the manager of tennis star Jimmy Connors and executive director of the Independent Players Association. I was fortunate to be his assistant, and he provided lifelong lessons on all aspects of life.

John Hager, former lieutenant governor, served as my board chairman 1994-95 and taught me how to manage not only in the office but throughout the region. I learned from his diplomacy how to handle business locally and statewide.

And Virgil Hazelett, former Henrico County manager, shared business and jurisdictional issues and solutions with me – but more importantly, lifelong lessons in raising a family. It was his guidance that I mirrored in raising my children over the past two decades.

If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?

Never say anything bad about anybody. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Tell the truth.

What is your favorite aspect of the Richmond region?

A decade ago, we did not look so great. A burned-out McDonald’s sat across from City Hall. The two downtown department stores sat idle and were decaying. Several city blocks were boarded up and vacant.

But the Richmond psyche began to change. Downtown was being transformed, and suburbanite baby boomers began to move downtown among the millennials.

The destination is having its renaissance – we have become the Austin and Portland of the East Coast. And it’s our citizens who have made this happen. We are proud of our destination. Our best days are here, and we get better every day.

BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times-Disbatch