Mary Wagstaff’s path to becoming a hospitality and travel PR leader started at the frontlines of the food scene. She learned the industry from the inside, waiting tables during college and later launching her own agencies – the latest of which was recently acquired. We spoke to Mary to learn why it was the right time to join forces and become MMGY Wagstaff, what her role looks like now and what continues to keep her inspired and engaged.
What drew you to the PR industry and how did you get your start?
I went to college at New York University and worked as a hostess and a server (we were called waitresses then) at restaurants in New York. I was fortunate to work at some very good restaurants like Keen's, Gotham Bar & Grill, Joe Baum's Aurora, and three of Chef Jonathan Waxman's restaurants in New York and a restaurant he had in London, too. I loved the work and there was a lot to learn about food, wine, and hospitality. When I was working at Jonathan's restaurant Jam's, an article on Jonathan and his partner Melvyn Master was published that was a two-page photo spread of them wearing expensive suits and holding a plate boasting their highly regarded free range chicken and frites dish. My then 20-year-old brain started to whir, and I wanted to know how an article like that came to be. I had never known or heard of a publicist at that time. Five years later when I was living and working in Chicago as a server (times were changing) and a freelance food writer, Mark Knauer, a celebrated restaurant designer and frequent patron at the restaurant where I worked, started talking to me about a job opportunity as a publicist. "What's a publicist?" I asked. Once he explained the role and that I would be working with chefs and restaurants, I was in.
I worked at several boutique agencies in Chicago, and soon realized that it was going to be hard for me to be successful working with clients in areas I didn't know anything about, i.e., anything outside of food and beverage marketing. At that time there really weren't any dedicated food and restaurant agencies, and I thought that not only would these kinds of clients benefit from the focused attention, but I thought there must be other PR pros who were food nuts, so I put together a business plan for a restaurant and specialty food and beverage product agency. I had an investor, and when I gave my current employer notice, he thought it was a great idea and said he would start the new agency, ProVisions, with me. ProVisions was the right idea at the right time. It coincided with the advent of the Food Network. Now restaurants had larger budgets for PR and marketing and there were more opportunities than ever to promote these businesses around the globe.
When it came time for me to open my solo venture Wagstaff Worldwide (later becoming Wagstaff Media & Marketing) in 1999, I was well prepared as I had learned some of the pitfalls of business ownership. Also, with Wagstaff Worldwide, I added travel as an area of expertise, which literally opened the world up to our company.
Tell us about the recent acquisition of Wagstaff by MMGY. Why was this the right time to join forces?
I had long admired MMGY Global for their work in the travel industry. Former MMGY CEO Clayton Reid and current CEO Katie Briscoe and I had been getting to know each other since 2015 and looking for more ways to work together. It was appealing to me to look for ways to partner with MMGY because of their unparalleled travel data and research and how that informs their media buys and creative. I knew our clients and our colleagues needed what they were offering. After the pandemic, it was clear to me that being a sole business owner was a bigger risk than ever, so my conversations with Clayton and Katie naturally turned to having Wagstaff become part of the MMGY family.
In my current role as Partner and Managing Director at MMGY Wagstaff, my role looks much the same as it did when I was President at Wagstaff, except now I'm no longer responsible for the HR, admin, and finance functions of the company. It hasn't even been a year yet, and we are seeing a lot of growth amongst our colleagues. We have a bright and experienced team, and I'm so proud of them and the work they are producing for our clients.
What are a few key ways the business has changed since you started out?
Back when I started as a publicist, it was all about who you know. Today, many of those walls have been broken down, and I think the playing field has leveled to provide more opportunities for more people.
At Wagstaff, we always made an effort to hire diversely and to stray away from cookie cutter programs that played the same message to the same people. And, in spite of our best efforts, we were biased. With better technology, research, and data, companies like ours are able to market to more diverse audiences and more effectively.
Today just may be a golden age for travel. There seems to be more business than ever, and technology available to travel marketers is ramping up fast. I'm just trying to keep up, but I see so many opportunities for my colleagues just getting started in the business.
What do you prefer about the old days to now?
In the old days we had more long business lunches, often with wine. That seldom happens these days. Sad, really.
To what do you attribute your longevity in the industry?
I'm not that old. And, I've really enjoyed being a part of the hospitality industry since I started working at McDonald's when I was fifteen years old. I really enjoy service and making people happy.
What keeps you inspired and engaged professionally?
The people that I work with. Both my colleagues and my clients. I'm inspired by the people I work with and impressed by the work they do. I want to help them in any way I can to get more joy and meaning out of their work. And I adore my clients, even the tricky ones.
What is top of your travel destination list? Are there any locales you like to visit regularly?
I've been working hard for a long time, so I actually haven't been able to travel as much as I would like to. So, my list of places I want to go is much longer than we have room for here.
I've been to Australia more than a dozen times for work. I would like to go back there with my partner Jordan and my daughter Evie for a non-work trip.
I've always loved New Orleans. It is one of the best food towns I've ever been to, and I love seeing live music. In New Orleans there seems to be a talented performer around every corner. Although my primary residence is in Ojai, CA, we have a house in New Orleans that I rent out to family, but we keep a little pied-à-terre in the back of the house, so I feel very connected to that city.
What are some of my favorite spots in Los Angeles?
I live in Ojai but work in Los Angeles three days a week.
In Ojai, if I'm not at home with Jordan and our dogs, Lola and Chloe, I can be found at the Ojai Valley Inn trying to play golf or more successfully enjoying a margarita, or having a pizza at Pinyon or dinner at the bar at Rory's Place.
In LA, my favorite spots are old school. Musso & Franks and Dear John are two favorites. My go-to these days is a new restaurant in DTLA called Camphor. It's a solid restaurant and feels like a little trip to Paris every time I visit. My favorites these days are the Viceroy Santa Monica or any of the Palihotels.
What are some of the biggest challenges you predict for the industry in the next few years?
I worry that we are getting too serious and filtering out the fun in what is an industry driven by passion. My hope is that the next generation of travel marketing leaders are going to be able to use technology to solve marketing puzzles for our clients, while remaining excited about the work we do and the places that the work takes us.
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