An angle of sustainability is ensuring there are generations of professional leaders and innovators. As director of a research center at Arizona State University, I was tasked with starting an advisory board for the Center for Sustainable Tourism and our tourism degree programs. To do this, I considered who was speaking in our classes to motivate college students, who was giving our students an opportunity to intern, and who was employing our students after graduation. The answers to all those questions was Kate Christensen, a female business owner and tourism entrepreneur extraordinaire.
Christensen is an Arizona female business owner and has been working “on” and working “in” her business for nearly 30 years. Katherine Christensen & Associates, Inc. (KCA) was established in May 1992 as a home-based business. In just eight years, she and her early employees outgrew the space and she purchased (not leased) her first building. In the years since, she has renovated the space many times over—but remains operating at that very address in Chandler, Arizona.
Christensen’s team has grown to 24 people (mostly Arizona State University (ASU)/University of Arizona (UofA) interns and grads); many having some serious tenure and have earned their way to managerial and directorship positions.
Christensen is proud of that human investment into Arizona university graduates, and over the years, the firm has been successful because KCA is able to make decisions and pivot quickly and easily (a hint for a business survival tactic).
KCA manages nonprofit professional and trade associations. The travel piece with association management is planning meetings and events for the associations, as well as managing other corporate and government meetings and events. Some of those events are booked and staged in Arizona; others move to various states or countries per the client’s needs.
Christensen loves the planning. The real gratification is seeing the planning come alive at the event and being on-site and seeing the product of KCA’s team work, she says.
The Secrets to Being a Leader
I asked Christensen what shaped her as a leader. She shared with me that it was a variety of positions, including serving our country in the U.S. Air Force, educational opportunities such as graduating from ASU’s Executive Business Program in 1990, and professional experiences working for other companies. It is from these life-shaping influences that she crafted her own company.
Another secret ingredient to her own company’s successes was joining Meeting Planners International (MPI) and being involved in committee and board work.
She rose to the top of MPI as the association’s president in 1996 to 1997, and remains involved as a member and national and international conference attendee.
Local involvement also shaped Christensen and her business. She became very active with the Women’s Business Enterprise Council (WBEC-West) as a member and volunteer, and also led the Council.
The Ahwatukee Chamber of Commerce is another local group where Christensen gave of her time and talents. Once again, she joined the board, and she chaired the Chamber. Her mantra is “to move over to allow others to move up.” She encourages her employees to participate in the industry and community in order to develop themselves. Her staff has learned from Christensen the value of participation, accountability, compassion, and simply helping those in need.
Today, the KCA team participates annually with the Salvation Army’s Angel drive and uses its planning talents to package, coordinate, organize, and distribute the gifts at holiday time.
A Point of Pride for a Female Business Owner and Leader
Christensen prides herself on being a stable employer and team-oriented owner. This means providing opportunities for her team of talented employees, and attracting and retaining wonderful long-term commitments. She always speaks about her team and includes them in everything.
Christensen is grateful for all of them through the years, and as she readily admits, she could not do it alone.
It isn’t “her” business, Christensen says, “It is OUR business.”
Managing Through COVID
Travel, tourism, and event management have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Christensen recognized the challenges and used a tactic of listing and examining the challenges as they unfolded, and then found solutions and strategies to overcome the challenges. Besides the possible loss of clients and their association management contracts, the larger challenge was the eradication of in-person meetings.
According to Christensen, her business has thrived because “people need to see, laugh with, and learn from each other in person.”
KCA already had experience with two international association clients holding meetings via technology. In March 2020, most clients were reviewing their needs and concluding they needed to continue to deliver member services via technology. KCA had a solution in place and seamlessly rolled into this new era of remote staff and “Zooming.”
Christensen says the KCA team cannot wait to get back out there with in-person meetings and events to fuel their souls—after all, that is what they love doing.
Her Final Advice to Women Small Business Owners in Travel and Tourism
Christensen has mentored many young entrepreneurs over her nearly 30 years in business and tees them up for success. To sustain a business, an owner and its employees need to have the thirst, the hunger, and the desire to work hard. Rarely is an entrepreneur a 40- or 50-hour-per-week worker. And as an owner, Christensen is thinking about, working on, or planning ahead all the time.
For the younger entrepreneur, she suggests that they have to not only have the passion and skill for what they want to do, but also immediately understand that only 50% of their time will be involved with client or project servicing. As the owner, the remaining is working on the business functions, including accounting, banking, and cash flow, marketing, human relations, technology, database management, registrations, licensing, insurance, taxes, and so much more.
Her final point is, “Lucky are the few who can navigate through the periods of growth, recessions, or pandemics.”