Wesley Cullen has seen her days in wrestling, booking, venues, hotels, and even the world’s largest rum distillery. The industry veteran says she has appreciated her positions throughout live events and continues to push the boundaries of where those skills can take her and others in the field.
“There are really great people in this industry and we sometimes can have blinders to all the things we could be doing. I’ve been lucky enough to have a variety of it,” Cullen told Amplify. “So I encourage people to explore their other options.”
After traveling the world with WWE, Cullen set her sights on Puerto Rico and, within two years of moving to the Caribbean island, was named GM of the new The Coliseo de Puerto Rico.
“I loved my job at the Coliseo. The Coliseo was my baby. It was so hard to leave, but I had been there for 10 years and I looked around and there were a lot of people who wanted to become GM,” Cullen said. “There were also people who worked with me who were fantastic and talented and deserved their chance of moving up. If you don’t move out of the way, they don’t get to move up.”
Now as the current GM of Casa Bacardi in Puerto Rico, Cullen is taking on a new challenge in a familiar field. Casa Bacardi hosts rum tastings, tours, and mixology sessions for tourists, but Cullen is looking to revitalize the facility’s music venue and bring locals back to the iconic building. Amplify caught up with Cullen to talk about all the places the events industry has taken her.
Did you get your start in music or in facilities?
Neither. When I decided that events would be my career, it was with World Wrestling Entertainment.
I was really young and focused on wanting to travel internationally. There was an opportunity with WWE to work on their international tours. I did that for four years and it was absolutely fascinating and fantastic. I got to work on all these different aspects of the events in 12 or 15 countries. Up until then I was young and figuring out what I wanted to do, but I really wanted to make the world a better place. I realized through events you really can. When you capture people’s attention, you can use that for good. Plus I really loved the industry and everything that was involved.
What were you doing for WWE?
I started working in the booking department in the U.S. and then switched over to doing the international. I was the manager for all the tours. It started as something pretty small. WWE hadn’t done much international business in live events in a long time. I got to participate in growing that, everything from selecting the markets and the venues, working with the promoters, all the marketing departments and production folks, and all the other logistics that are involved in taking that massive show around the world.
Wrestling is very idiosyncratic culture, but as a company it is so high performance and the people working there are really talented. It is an addicting environment. You’re getting stuff done all the time and operating at that level.
Were you a fan of wrestling?
No. I wasn’t. I’m not the target demographic. I knew what it was, but I grew up abroad and I wasn’t that familiar with it. But that’s part of what I love about this business. There are shows I may not like or shows I may not be the audience for, but it’s about creating this experience for people that love wrestling or Christian music or country or classical.
I got to see how markets and people around the world connected through wrestling. They really do. It’s something that is highly underappreciated. Certainly I didn’t have the perspective until I saw it. But as with music, wrestling crosses every human boundary that exists. All different cultures, all different types of people, all classes. It is amazing the diversity of people that are attracted to wrestling and it’s global appeal.
Were you able to fulfill that dream of doing good in the world through wrestling?
Absolutely. That was one of the most satisfying things about being part of WWE. It’s what helped me to continue to be supportive of what they did. WWE grants more Make-a-Wishes than any other organization in the world and they do it internationally. Every market that we went to, we would do some sort of outreach or education. In Ireland, we went to schools and would do anti-bullying programs. In South Africa we partnered with raising awareness about hunger programs. Depending on the market we were in, the opportunity and the need, they engaged. To see what these wrestlers meant to these folks, especially those with terminal illnesses or handicaps often connect with these wrestlers maybe because they seem superhuman. To be there coordinating some of that was incredible.
Where did you go after working in wrestling?
From there I moved to Puerto Rico. I had been with WWE for several years and it was fantastic, but it was not my lifelong goal to work at wrestling forever. I sat down and thought, what am I looking for, what do I want to do next? In terms of quality of life, in terms of work, and whatever other opportunities I made a list of places that had these things. Nowhere on my list had them all. Then they started building The Coliseo de Puerto Rico and it had all the things I wanted. As I looked into Puerto Rico, it seemed like the perfect place.
Dale Adams, who I had met at industry events, came down to open the arena and when I was interested in exploring Puerto Rico. There wasn’t anything available at that point, but he called me later on and there was an opportunity to come down here. So I did, thinking I might be here for two years. I wanted to learn Spanish, but I’m not someone to stay in one place for all that long. But 11 years later, here I am and I’ve never lived anywhere in my life more than five years before this.
What was the position in Puerto Rico?
I came down to Puerto Rico in 2006 as the Director of Events and Guest Services for a year to a year and a half. Then I was AGM for a little under a year and then became the GM for the rest of the time I was there, which was around eight years.
What was kind of shows were popular in your market?
Part of why Puerto Rico is such a fantastic market is that you can do both a Latin market and an international market. We’d have all the Latin pop, all the local talent, reggatone, and the diversity of genres that there are. But also the international acts that are likely going down to South America or on their way up. Through the Coliseo de Puerto Rico, which is this really nice arena that’s just 12 years-old now, the production value on the island went way up. People could start doing shows like Cirque du Soleil and massive productions like Metallica. I don’t listen to Metallica at home but the show is amazing, the energy is incredible, and I’ll never forget it. I am a huge Marc Anthony fan. At this point, I know I have passed the 1,000 show mark and they are all kind of special. I was there 10 years so there were artists I would see selling 2,500 tickets and then years later they are selling it out. That’s always exciting even if it is not my kind of music.
Is there any artist right now that you really enjoy?
I’ve been on a retro kick this last week. I listen to a lot of music in Spanish. I really like it and I’m very aware of what is out there in the Latin market. I’m a huge fan of Bomba Estéreo. They are from Columbia.
Did you go straight to Bacardi after Coliseo de Puerto Rico?
One of the things that I find interesting about the concert and venue industry is that we sometimes, including myself, realize all the opportunities that are out there to apply what we do. Venues are great and impactful, but there are other ways that you can go about it. I love the events and entertainment business and don’t want to move away from that, but also having fallen in love with Puerto Rico and making my home here and realizing the potential the tourism market has, I started getting more and more engaged in there.
So I got involved with people who bought an iconic hotel in Puerto Rico called El San Juan Hotel. Part of its legend is about music. They have a 400-seat theater where people like Frank Sinatra and others would perform. There is a lot that is involved with music. I was working with them to set up all of their music programming, getting some shows going, art and a lot of the creative aspects. That was fun and gave me the opportunity to learn about the hotel industry. That’s the thing. A lot of hotels have venues and are seeking to create more things going on on their property to bring people in for different reasons than just staying there.
How long were you with the hotel?
In February the hotel opened and there is plenty to do and they are going to do all kinds of great programming there, but getting to opening and setting up the projects was the majority of the work. Then in April Bacardi called me and they have a visitor’s center that receives a couple hundred thousand people a year. It’s beautiful and spectacular. You can learn about making rum and cocktails. There are rum tastings. That was interesting, but not something that was going to draw me to it. But as I learned what they were up to here which has a lot to do with music and art, combined with the tourism property that has so much potential it was amazing. It was sort of perfect. It was a little fast and I felt bad for leaving the hotel, but it was something that I couldn’t pass up and we still partner with the hotel.
How did Bacardi win you over?
Bacardi is super sustainable and that’s important to me. We can be very impactful with concerts and any time we are bringing together en masse, we are creating a lot of waste and opportunity to create a lot of consciousness. There’s also that it hosts people. I love to host people. Casa Bacardi is also a venue. We have this huge lawn where concerts have been done where we have the capacity for about 5,000 people. We have this facility that used to be activated as a venue, but hasn’t been for a while. In this industry, there is more that we can do than we even realize and this is one of those things.
Are there certain programs at Bacardi you’re excited about?
There are a lot of activations. You may not see it out there, but they are doing a lot with music already. We have a rum that we made with Major Lazer. It is not a sponsorship where they put their name on it, but where the guys came and were a part of blending it. For their new song and video, we released a Snapchat filter where people would do the filter with themselves, upload it, share it, and then the video for the song was made by collecting the submissions from people. For the release of another single, every time you listen to it on Spotify money was donating for up and coming artists to get studio time. Really cool programming like this that nobody has ever done.
Bacardi activates at all the major music festivals. We have a huge partnership with Live Nation this summer for concert cash where Bacardi bottles have concert cash that people can use.
We also have No Commission with Swizz Beats that is all about art and there is always music as well. There are programs in Shang Hi, London, Berlin, and Miami. Bacardi is inviting artists to exhibit their work and not charging any commission. They are giving them the exposure and creating experiences around it to get people engaged.
Do you mostly see tourists or locals at Casa Bacardi?
Currently the majority of people coming through are tourists. Soon we will start doing a lot of outreach to locals because they may not have been here in a long time. It’s not the kind of place you’re going to come every weekend. Mixology is a lot of fun and a lot of people would repeat it, but what the events and concerts will be for. This is not just a visitor center, 85% of Bacardi’s rum is made here. It is the largest rum distillery in the world. We have over half a million barrels in aging warehouses across the property.
We’re going to start engaging the locals and bringing them back with the rooms and venues that we have. We’ll do some smaller events with maybe 50 people and brunch with music. With the larger 5,000 space on the lawn, I expect will be mostly locals. We will do stuff where we bring in mixologists, industry people, and artists that we might collaborate with.
You’ve said that you like experiencing new cultures, do you find that since the majority of visitors at Casa Bacardi are tourists that new cultures are now coming to you?
Yes. It’s hard because I want to do my job, but I also want to be a hostess. We just had a party with two of the top mixologists visiting us. One was from Mexico and one was French, but his bar is in New York. A couple of weeks ago we had six of the top bartenders from Russia, also some from Poland, New Zealand, and all over the world. Bacardi is in 160 countries in the world and people from those countries want to come and see where it was made. On the visitor’s side, when I go over to the bar there are all kinds of people there. I love it.
It’s like with music. Spirits, in this case rum, can bring people together. It is happy moments and it is impacting their life in a fantastic way.
Since you’ve been at Bacardi, just like wrestling, have you gotten to know the art of spirits?
Oh yeah. Just like I can’t wrestle, I can’t make cocktails. These guys make incredible concoctions and it is everything that goes into the experience of that. I love that. Every little detail that goes down to the most minor details that some people notice and some people don’t. I have a whole new appreciation for glassware now. When they are really getting into the cocktail, it is about the whole experience. It’s when you see them prepare it and it’s how it is served. You can get a cocktail in the glass it was designed to be in or be served cocktail in a martini glass and it is not the same thing.
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