In 1985, when Anne LeClair, a pretty young woman, became the first female executive director of a struggling San Mateo Chamber of Commerce, there were just 100 members. By the time she left, the chamber had more than 900 and was a major force in the city and county.

When she moved on to become the first woman president and CEO of the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2000, the bureau was trying to find a better way to finance its activities. It had been relying on the transit occupancy tax which cities collected and in turn could or could not turn over to the convention bureau. She implemented, instead, the Tourism Business Improvement District which collects a small percentage of hotel guest’s fees and the cities keep their TOT. Today the Convention Bureau represents all cities in the county (except Menlo Park and Daly City) and Palo Alto. Fees brought in $2.1 million this year. A 16-member staff includes a sales team in Chicago, the east coast, Sacramento, Southern California, the Southwest and Northern California. It also has an international representative since a significant number of county visitors come from other countries.


I asked LeClair, what’s the big attraction in San Mateo County? She explained, it’s the scenery — ocean and Bay views, lots of open space and proximity to San Francisco International Airport. And its location close to San Francisco, Silicon Valley and high tech in the south and biotech in the north. Popular destinations for both international and domestic visitors are the Facebook sign (for photos) in Menlo Park, Filoli, Half Moon Bay, wineries and shopping.


LeClair has witnessed the explosive growth in the high tech and biotech industries; the changes in downtowns which are becoming more geared for younger people and more exciting. There has been a huge growth in hotel projects; there are over 170 hotels in the county and Palo Alto. LeClair attributes this to the demand for last-minute business travelers. The Grand Hyatt, the new SFO hotel, is expected to open this summer. It will have 351 rooms. For now, when demand is so high, it is not expected to hurt surrounding hotels But LeClair pointed out, the hotel business, like much else, is cyclical.


LeClair has burst through many glass ceilings with no cuts or bruises to show. When she was admitted to the San Mateo Rotary Club in 1987, a bastion of white males, there was no red carpet or welcome mat. This followed a Supreme Court decision which said private clubs could not discriminate against women. In fact at her first meeting the waitress at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel told LeClair she didn’t like serving women and women didn’t belong in the club. And even though many male Rotarians tried to make life difficult, especially when she was chosen as the first women president, LeClair more than rose to the challenge. She reminded me of the musical about Annie Oakley and the song “Anything you Can Do I Can Do Better.” LeClair could out joke and outsmart and outprank the old boys and they just loved it. Two other women also were admitted to Rotary at the same time but they made it a point never to sit together. Since LeClair’s reign there have been six women chosen as San Mateo Rotary presidents and the next one in line is Anne Campbell, former county superintendent of schools.


I asked LeClair if it was difficult to work in a world dominated by men and she said it never was a problem for her and she never thought about it. Before coming to San Mateo she was a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. One day, she and a male colleague were trying to hail a cab without luck. Her colleague suggested she show some leg to which she replied why don’t you lie down in the middle of the street and maybe that will attract some attention.


She lived in Saudi Arabia for two years where her husband Jim was employed and their first child was born. I still can’t fathom a cloaked LeClair being unable to drive and how she survived in a country known for its poor treatment of women. But she did. She and husband, Jim, then moved to the Peninsula because they had family here and Jim was a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Today, that little girl born in Saudia Arabia is married and expecting and LeClair looks forward to her next new challenge. Being a grandmother.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at

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