When Sue Varga was hired in 2006, she felt she could make a difference. After 15 years at PR and marketing agencies, and several years at the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA), she knew she brought with her a host of community, media, and business contacts eager to partner with her in promoting Balboa Park and its many amenities.
After transitioning from serving as Balboa Park Central’s Director of Marketing to the Balboa Park Conservancy’s Director of Park Activation (following the merger with Central), she continued to leverage these strategic partnerships to launch and grow several highly successful park activation programs in conjunction with the city’s Parks and Recreation department. In recognition of her work, she received the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership’s One Park One Team award for marketing in 2016. And in 2017, the City of San Diego recognized Sue’s commitment and collaborative approach to organizing the Food Truck Fridays program with a special “Game Ball” award.
On the occasion of her retirement this month, Sue reflects on some of her favorite memories in Balboa Park and the key initiatives she oversaw.
How did you get your start working in Balboa Park?
I heard about the Director of Marketing position for Balboa Park Central through my work as the arts liaison at CONVIS. The outgoing director suggested I apply based on all the work I had been doing to promote Balboa Park and park organizations in my then current role at SDTA. As a native San Diegan, I had spent at lot of time visiting Balboa Park, taking classes at park museums, attending theater performances, and enjoying time outdoors, so I already had a deep love for the park and was excited for the opportunity.
Tell us a bit about your background?
My love of different cultures goes back to when I was a child, and when I was 20, I had the opportunity to travel through Europe for three months. I still love to travel the world whenever I get a chance, and I really enjoyed bringing those authentic cultural experiences back to the park through programs centered on entertainment, food, and cultural activities.
What are some of your favorite memories of Balboa Park while working here?
There are so many great memories working with my Balboa Park colleagues over the years and witnessing some really great performances at park activation events. But one standout moment that always comes to mind is the time we collaborated with MTS, the Fleet Science Center, and the Natural History Museum to have 250 local schoolchildren paint a 60-foot articulated MTS bus that had gone out of service. The kids, led by museum staff, painted the bus with nature and science-themed images to promote Balboa Park and environmental awareness. The bus was put back in service for six months and was seen all over San Diego. I also have very fond memories of the Top Dog Photo Contest, promoted through the long-running Cosmos’s Doggie Blog, and the Kid’s-Eye View of the Park photo contest, in collaboration with the Museum of Photographic Arts.
What of your accomplishments in Balboa Park are you most proud of or you feel will have the most lasting impact?
Over my 14 years in Balboa Park, I feel I helped bring a new level of collaboration among different types of entities that didn’t exist before in the park. As Director of Marketing working with a limited budget, I needed to be creative and think outside the box. So I focused on leveraging strategic partnerships with a wide variety of organizations, including the Port of San Diego, the Convention Center, MTS, the San Diego Concierge Association, SDG&E, the many museums and park organizations, as well as a number of radio, TV, and print media partners on both sides of the border.
That collaborative approach was adapted to working with Parks and Recreation to create the new food truck programs. Knowing what I had done to bring dozens of organizations together for annual Halloween and science-themed family days, Parks and Recreation asked me to help liven up the usually quiet Friday nights in the park during the summer. Thanks to the involvement of park organizations, media partners like iHeart Media and XEWT 12, and sponsors like AT&T and California Coast Credit Union, we were able to turn these into weekly community events for all ages and demographics, featuring a diversity of live entertainment and activities for kids, along with a curated selection of gourmet food trucks.
Our partners have also played major roles in expanding and enhancing our existing programs. Parks and Rec, for example, brought to the Halloween Family Day costume contests for all age groups and carnival-type games in the Plaza de Panama, which became event centerpieces. And San Diego Civic Dance Arts gave us the event’s signature Thriller Flash Mob dance.
What was the most fulfilling part of your role?
It’s been especially gratifying to be able to present such a wide array of culturally rich and diverse programing in the park. My goal with park activation events has always been to expose people to different cultures and new experiences and artists while giving local independent arts programs a chance to reach new audiences. And the feedback and response have been incredible.
The annual Cinco de Mayo Celebration has been particularly noteworthy in showcasing authentic Mexican arts, crafts, and live entertainment. With the help of XEWT 12, the Mexican Consulate, Univision, Kiwanis, and other partners, we were able to fill the day with mariachis, traditional folk dances, and other authentic music, along with an equestrian procession and Huichol and Oaxacan craftspeople all the way from Mexico. In its first year, National Geographic featured our event as one of the five best places to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the US.
What was the most challenging?
Given the sheer number of performers, partners, vendors, and other complexities, the Cinco de Mayo Celebration, with its expansion to two main venues in 2019, is the most challenging program I’ve ever been involved in. But it became a labor of love. It’s important to emphasize, however, that it would not have been logistically possible to put on any of these parkwide events, and especially Cinco de Mayo, without the Conservancy staff and wonderful volunteers from the Visitors Center.
What Places Will You Return to Visit in the Park During Your Retirement?
Growing up in San Diego, I’ve always enjoyed all aspects of the park all of my life, so I will continue to take walks, visit the museums and the Zoo, and take in concert and theater performances once those opportunities become available again.