Dale Hess’ storied career as a San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (SFCVB) executive blooms with accolades and honors. But his legend sprouted early, when his corporate journalism professor at Boston University suggested he attempt a “warm-up” interview at the Boston Statler Hilton Hotel—without an appointment. Two hours later, he was hired in Catering Sales for Hilton Hotels in Boston, Washington, D.C. and Florida.
Despite his reserved, ultra-private personality, Dale served as a benchmark of excellence for SFCVB staff, the hospitality industry and community leaders.
Widely respected for his calm, steady leadership, depth of experience, and volunteerism, Dale was driven by his insatiable curiosity to explore the world and gain knowledge.
Travel was not only at the center of his professional experience but his personal passion as well. He was a man schooled in uncovering hidden gems in places around the globe, whether in his personal favorites, Hawaii, Paris, Italy, or his beloved San Francisco. Equally enthusiastic about famous, local tourist attractions, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, he described walking the length of it as “the walk of walks.”
According to Cindy Hu, his associate at the Bureau, Dale “knew every one of the 40-something hills that define San Francisco’s corrugated surface and never tired of exploring ‘Everybody’s Favorite City’.”
After 33 years at the Bureau, Dale realized his dream to retire, travel the world, and visit far too many countries and destinations to list, while also savoring life in San Francisco, San Diego, and Palm Springs. On May 31, 2022, on a picture-perfect, sunny morning, he passed away peacefully, in Palm Springs—his partner and best friend, Daniel Webb at his side. Dale was 81.
Sent to boarding school
The youngest of three sons, Dale was born June 19, 1940, in Lancaster, PA, to Anna Mae Kready and Charles S. Hess. Only 4 or 5 when his father suddenly passed away, Dale was sent to Milton Hershey School, a boarding school in Hershey, PA. He completed high school and junior college in Hershey, before earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Boston University’s School of Communications in 1962. He then graduated from the Institute of Organization Management at the University of Santa Clara.
Following the death of his father, his oldest brother Donald watched over Dale and made sure they shared time and activities together. They enjoyed a close relationship throughout their lives until Donald passed in 2013. Dale looked up to and greatly respected Donald as a brother and also as a father figure who mentored and influenced him.
One of Dale’s fondest memories was hosting astronauts at the Hilton Cape Kennedy, in Florida, at the peak of the space missions and interacting with the American icons of the age.
In the late 1960s, upon leaving his job at Hilton, Dale hopped into his new Toyota Land Cruiser and took several months off to travel the country, hitting every spot in the U.S. that interested him. Along the way, he pondered his future while keeping tabs on his extensive professional network. Learning of a job with a deluxe tour operator in Hawaii, he jumped at it.
He loved his three years leading tours of the islands and living at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. Hawaii remained a very special place in Dale’s life; he adored the people, the weather, water, culture, music, food (fresh fruit, fish), frequently indulging in some Lappert’s Kaua’i Pie Ice Cream and Living Aloha, which means living, loving, appreciating, giving, and playing with one’s whole heart and self, always with respect for others and nature.
When his job brought him to the mainland every few weeks, Dale discovered his heart belonged in San Francisco. In 1971, he joined the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, holding management positions in both Marketing and Administration prior to being appointed VP, Public Affairs in 1983. In 1992, promoted to Executive Vice President, he oversaw areas ranging from membership to finance.
He proudly championed two projects
When he retired in 2005, Dale talked of two projects he proudly championed: bringing the Moscone Convention & Exhibition Center into reality by taking it to the voters on four occasions and luring visitors back to the City following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The Moscone Center, which took 17 years to develop and build, stretches across three blocks and 87 acres and hosts everything from the San Francisco International Auto Show to the American Thoracic Society.
Dale was equally stoked about San Francisco hosting Super Bowl XIX and riding in the 49ers’ victory parade the next day; traveling down Powell Street on the first cable car to return to service in 1984 after a two-year restoration, a result of his serving on the City’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars; and standing on the roof of the St. Francis hotel for a live appearance on Nightline with Ted Koppel just prior to the opening of the Democratic Convention in 1984.
But the day-to-day interaction with the Bureau staff and working with numerous community leaders and organizations to keep the City he loved vibrant and attractive to tourists topped everything else. So long as costs stayed in line.
Frugal yet generous
His cohort at the Bureau, Cindy Hu, remarked on Dale’s respect for other people’s money, whether it was the members’ investments in the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau or funding from the city’s hotel tax. “He was frugal with money and generous with his wisdom,” Cindy said.
Had Dale not pursued a distinguished career in the hospitality industry, Cindy believes he might have become an architect or general contractor. “From the ninth floor of our offices at 201 Third St.,” she said, “Dale had a birds-eye view of notable projects rising around us in the Yerba Buena redevelopment area: From Moscone South, North, and West to the St. Regis hotel, the tallest concrete structure on the West Coast.”
Esoteric facts about San Francisco came easily to Dale and he would summon Cindy to watch foundations poured or rebar knitted together. “It was no accident that there were a number of hard hats in his office,” she said. “He loved walking around construction sites and often visited the National Building Museum on trips to Washington, D.C.”
His wicked one-liners surprised some
Comfortable interacting with political and industry leaders, whether at the local, state or national level, Dale remained approachable and personable with everyone. He also had a dry, yet playful sense of humor, his wicked one-liners a surprise to some.
At six feet tall and slender, Dale had bright blue eyes, a sly, sometimes mischievous smile, and a deep, soothing voice, which always brought a reassuring calm. When speaking up or asked for an opinion, however, he held sway over the room, his audience eager to hear his perspective.
His interest in art, viewing and collecting, was ingrained in his nature. Although his tastes were wide-ranging, with a preference for modern and abstracts, he reveled in finding new, upcoming artists, and purchasing and championing their work.
Another old friend, Rick Lawrance, recalled Dale’s appetite for travel. “Dale loved Paris and all things Parisian, but his very favorite was lunch al fresco at Le Cafe Marly at the Louvre, overlooking the I.M. Pei-designed pyramid. It was often a two- to three-hour event for him and his party, and one he always enjoyed.”
Besides travel, Dale’s other escape was opera. His close friend of five decades, Tim Wilcox, was one of his go-to opera pals. A number of years ago, Dale told Tim, “You know we lived through and experienced the ‘golden age of opera’.” How in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Dale went on to explain, the two saw the best of the best, Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland, Sills, Caballé, Horn, Price, Verrett, Milnes, etc.
Dale’s appetite for opera was shared in the 70s-80s with his then partner, Dr. Claude Gadbois, who died in 1987.
Along with his highbrow music tastes, Dale loved sweets, especially anything lemon: Arnold Palmers (iced tea and lemonade), lemon bars, lemon drops, and lemon meringue pie. Possibly due to his Pennsylvania Dutch roots, he preferred simple pleasures and foods. He favored his chocolate cake served with milk in a bowl (from his childhood). Breakfast at Louis’ Diner at Ocean Beach or Sears Fine Food off Union Square; blue plates at Mel’s or Max’s diners for turkey, meatloaf, or liver and onions. Two of his favorite haunts on weekend getaways to Sonoma County (“Upcountry” as he called it) were Willie Bird and Mom’s Pies.
A voracious reader and history buff, he gobbled up politics, biographies, travel guides (to research various destinations), also LGBTQ history and literature. Not that he didn’t have faults; neatness and organization weren’t always priorities, but procrastination was, as he proudly proclaimed.
Throughout all of his charitable and volunteer efforts, no other cause was more personal to Dale than Coming Home (formerly Coming Home Hospice). Following the passing of Dr. Gadbois, Dale served on the board for decades, steadfastly dedicated to honoring Claude’s memory and ensuring that his legacy and leadership, as one of the founders, would live on. He also continued their practice of attending the opera.
Off to reunite with some of those closest
Revered by friends and colleagues alike for his thoughtful, generous spirit, Dale will be sorely missed. In the words of Daniel Webb, “It is comforting to imagine that he is off to reunite with some of those closest in life who have preceded him: his former partner, Dr. Claude Gadbois; his brother, Donald Hess; close friend and mentor, Bob Judson; former boss and close friend, George Kirkland; George’s wife and dear friend to Dale, Frances, and our beloved golden retriever, Harley.”
Extremely active civically, serving on boards and volunteering throughout his life, Dale was President of the California Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus; Founder of the Western Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus; President of the Northern California Society of Association Executives (and recipient of their first Lifetime Achievement Award); Fellow of the American Society of Association Executives; Treasurer of the City’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars, Board Trustee of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the Executive Committee of the Bay Area Superbowl Taskforce.
Dale Hess is survived by his partner Daniel Webb, his brother Charles Hess, two nieces, Jennifer Zannetos and Christine Sheppard, and a nephew, Michael Hess.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a newly established S. Dale Hess Excellence in Hospitality Scholarship through the San Francisco Travel Foundation.