Caroline Beteta-Whitney, U.S. Travel Hall of Leaders, calls Grass Valley home | TheUnion.com

Caroline Beteta-Whitney, U.S. Travel Hall of Leaders, calls Grass Valley home

Considering her role as CEO of Visit California, it could be considered quite a statement that Caroline Beteta-Whitney calls Grass Valley home.

After all, she's ultimately responsible for highlighting all aspects that make the Golden State great.

Beteta-Whitney, who has now called western Nevada County her home for 15 years, was honored for her work with an induction into the U.S. Travel Hall of Leaders, during a Wednesday ceremony in Washington D.C. She was joined by Christopher J. Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton Worldwide, as the 2016 inductees, the single highest honor the association can bestow upon members of the travel community, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

"Honestly, I was surprised and somewhat marveled to be honored. So many people of these people have been mentors for me," Beteta-Whitney said by phone Thursday. "The actual induction, with people like Dick Marriott in the audience along with other luminaries, it was very humbling and touching."

As chief marketing strategist of California's tourism industry, Beteta-Whitney oversees the state's $100 million global marketing budget. California's tourism industry continues to provide benefits for communities across the state — generating $122.5 billion in visitor spending supporting more than one million jobs and driving $9.9 billion in state and local tax revenue last year, according to a news release. She also is recognized for her role as chair of the board for Brand USA, building a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and industry stakeholders, an approach that has served as a model for the tourism industry.

"Actually it was modeled after the (agriculture) commodity boards in California," she said. "The idea is to bring the investors, like with the commodity board producers, closer to the product. … Why (the approach) is so popular is because the people investing in the program are at the table strategizing as well."

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Under her leadership, California has grown its tourism industry through cutting edge marketing campaigns and strategic investments in reaching global visitors. In 2014, she helped spearhead the Dream Big Dividend, an initiative to increase the industry's investment to more than $100 million per year. According to a news release, she led a 2015 strategic effort to double the state's international investments to $34.4 million, allowing Visit California to move deeper into markets like China and United Kingdom, and better position the brand in emerging markets, such as India and Brazil. With her at the helm, California has increased its share of U.S. domestic travel by bringing tens of millions of additional visitors to the state every year and billions of dollars to the state's economy.

Among the challenges ahead for California's tourism is the impact of climate change on the ski industry in the Sierra, particularly with the drought and a lack of snow, she said.

"We spend a lot of time on that issue," she said. "Obviously it's been a struggle. Last year was a very good year and we're hoping for more of that this year… But we also have some of the most-advanced snow-making capabilities out there, too."

Technology is sure to play a larger role in tourism promotion, she said, with the advancement of virtual reality and augmented reality, the sort of technology sought to be developed locally by the Green Screen Institute. But, she said, even though virtual reality might be able to take people around the globe with an realistic travel experience, it's not likely to replace the real thing.

"At this point I see it as complementary to what we do," she said. "But it does offer a window to the world."

Travel takes time and another initiative recently launched by the U.S. Travel Association, and with which Beteta-Whitney is working,Project: Time Off is focused on getting Americans to actually recognize the importance of taking the vacation time they've earned.

"In 2015, American workers reported taking off just 16.2 days, almost a full week less compared to the pre-2000 average (20.3 days)," the site states. "We call this America's Lost Week. The growing stockpile of unused paid leave is contributing to worker burnout and even larger balance sheet liabilities that directly affect a company's bottom line."

When she's away from work, Beteta-Whitney enjoys being home in Grass Valley. She moved here 15 years ago to be with her husband Art Whitney, a hall of famer, himself —inducted into the Nevada County Fairgrounds Hall of Fame in 2013.

"He's a longtime resident of the area," she said. "And I fell in love with the area, as well."

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.