Virginia Panico KARRIE PORTER PHOTOGRAPHY/Contributed

Virginia Panico, long-time Executive Vice President/ CEO of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, announced she will retire at the conclusion of her current contract on Dec. 31.

Panico, a Staten Island native, arrived in Key West in 1974 “as an ambitious young woman looking to make my mark in a business community dominated by men,” she said. Just like Panico, at that time, the city of Key West was redefining its identity. And whether the timing was divine or by pure coincidence, the two will be forever linked.

Early on, Panico served as the head of the Hotel and Motel Association, which laid the hospitality and tourism groundwork well before the TDC.

Panico joined the Key West Chamber in 1978 as owner of the El Patio Motel and joined the board in 1979. By 1985, Panico served as president of the Key West chamber board and volunteered to run the chamber after the unexpected departure of the executive director.

“There was a time where I was still serving as a city commissioner and the president of the chamber,” said Panico. “I was running the chamber as a volunteer my first year on the job.”

Afterward, Panico applied for the open executive vice president position, in a field of 132 applicants. She eventually landed the position, becoming the chamber’s CEO for the past 28 years.

“When I walked into the chamber, there was literally a chair with three wheels on it for a staff member to sit in,” said Panico. “But I hope we have made a difference in this community over the past three decades. Not just for businesses, but for everyone who lives here.”

During her tenure, Panico has been awarded the Athena Award, the Billy Applerouth Award and the Hall of Fame Award — just to name a few. But she says her success has always been grounded in a staff that shared her vision for the residents of Key West.

“People forget that business owners live here too,” said Panico. “We share the island together and you cannot separate the people from the businesses. That’s why it has always been important for this chamber to support the arts, education and health aspects of the community — along with our businesses.”

Like many of her pioneering Key West influences, Panico often credits icons like  Frank Toppino, Frank Romano, Joe Pinder, John Koenig and Margo Golan, who she says “taught me how powerful a woman can be in business. … When she walked into a room, everyone watched and listened.” 

The Key West chamber board will begin a search for a new CEO in the near future.

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