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Imagine an urban community that is an economic engine, arts mecca, and culinary hub all in one. Now fill it with some of the best entrepreneurs, chefs, and thinkers in the world and make sure there’s an energetic nightlife scene. Add in a mixture of 125 languages that represent the town’s 400,000 inhabitants, locally owned shops, and distinct neighborhoods. Place it near crystal water stretched across nineteen miles of coastline, sprinkle in some towering redwoods on rolling hills, add a natural lake in the middle of the city, and keep the average summer temperature under 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
It might sound too good to be true, but this place actually exists. It’s Oakland, California.
The Golden State’s eighth most populous city indeed has a lot to offer. After all, Oakland is home to the bustling Port of Oakland, the founders of the Black Panther Party, Lake Merritt, an historic Chinatown, a leading zoo, and a renowned symphony.
But even with all these assets, the Bright Side of the Bay found itself struggling in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic had taken its toll. Peter Gamez is CEO of Visit Oakland, the official destination marketing organization for the city. He says the era left his beloved town heartbroken as convention centers emptied, hotels closed, and tourism ground to a halt.
When he stepped in to lead the organization in 2021, he inherited historically low revenues. Gamez set his sights on helping Oakland thrive again. “I wanted to help other people discover the Oakland that I love, and I knew I could use the mix of my heritage, my passions, and my experience to make a true impact,” he says.
Gamez was born and raised just across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. His Cuban parents loved to travel and tied sightseeing and education into every family vacation across the states. Gamez studied broadcasting but worked in hotels where he put his language skills to good use and discovered the thrill of serving other travelers as their concierge.
He spent more than a quarter century crisscrossing the globe in various leadership roles within the hospitality sector. Still, Gamez kept the humble spirit he learned by working in different roles throughout hotels. “I had a mentor once tell me that everyone in the hospitality industry needs to have the heart of an innkeeper,” he says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
By the time Gamez got to Visit Oakland, some of the city’s residents and reporters were forecasting its demise. “We needed to create a positive story for Oakland. The media was telling our story without us,” he says.
Gamez’s first move was to meet with local media as he began to formulate a new strategy. Then he built a team of veteran professionals in sales, communications, marketing, and partnerships. Together, they set out to take control of Oakland’s narrative and tell the city’s story themselves.
That team gathered positive content to send to local TV stations and media. It focused hard on Oakland’s strong culinary and food-adjacent offerings to create a vegan trail, a cannabis trail, and an ale trail. Oakland may be the only place in the world where visitors can sample vegan soul food, vegan Puerto Rican cuisine, and everything in between. With the new trails off the ground, Visit Oakland is launching Oakland Style—a celebration of fashion, art, music, cuisine, and culture that Gamez says will allow his city to take center stage.
Gamez and his colleagues are aiming to draw people to Oakland and increase overnight stays that bring revenue to the region. They also employ an equitable approach that the CEO strongly believes in. “We try to be as inclusive as possible in all of our programming. As a Hispanic leader and first-generation American, I want to help other underrepresented small business owners get a chance to be seen,” he says.
This desire impacts the chefs and business owners he and Visit Oakland select to highlight and elevate. Oakland’s residents and visitors reap the rewards in the form of rich and unique experiences.
His position as CEO also gives Gamez a platform to support the LGBTQ+ community, which he is a part of. Oakland Pride occurs each September, and Gamez says he is proud to work in an inclusive community that values and celebrates all types of diversity.
Although Oakland is a major trade center with one of the busiest ports in the nation and top employers like Southwest Airlines and Kaiser Permanente, Gamez says the place he loves so much has never let its size get in its way. In fact, if you call Oakland a city, Gamez may correct you. “We call it the Town,” he explains. “Oakland is filled with people who have genuine, authentic spirit and welcoming hearts. It’s a major destination city with a small-town feel.”
Oakland is special—and it’s open for business.