We all have to start somewhere, and often that means having to work our way up from humble beginnings. David Whitaker, the President and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, is very familiar with this story. Growing up in a very small town in Georgia, David found the pathway out by getting to college, landing his first marketing job, and moving to Miami. Now, he is making a difference in the city, showcasing the strengths of its diversity and wonderful communities. In this episode, he takes us across his journey from small town to leading in a big city. David talks about the continuous evolution and growth of Miami, and how he is dealing with that as a CEO of a tourism promotion organization. A diverse city offers diverse opportunities. And for David, Miami is a great place that continues to provide that. Tune in and find out about the exciting projects and outlooks on the future of the city. Join David as he shares insights on the tourism industry and more in this conversation.
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From Small Town To Leading In A Big City With David Whitaker
Welcome to the show. Our mission for the show is to support leaders who are climbing that ladder of success with warnings, practical tips and techniques from leadership experts to highlight not just what it takes to be a leader in this age but in the process, build your confidence to show up more powerfully in your role.
I am your host, Alicia Couri, Founder and CEO of Audacious Concepts, Inc., a boutique consulting firm providing audacious solutions to nagging and persisting people issues clogging the revenue pipeline of your organization. From optimizing talent to reducing conflict and improving communication, our brain science, people data tool and expert coaching help you find the elegant solution to get the job done with more ease and less stress. Let’s join in on the conversation.
With me in this episode is David Whitaker. For more than three decades, David has distinguished himself as a respected industry leader, both in the communities he’s served and on the global travel tourism and convention industry stage. He was named President and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2021. The appointment was a homecoming for Whitaker who previously held GMCVB leadership positions from 1990 to 2007.
Miami was named a host city for the 2026 World Cup and the destination was featured in Florida’s 2022 Michelin Guide underscoring his commitment to the GMCVB’s role in positioning Miami-Dade County as a true live, work and play destination for visitors and residents alike. Upon his return, the GMCVB has also taken on significantly increased responsibility to successful markets and book future conventions and events at the newly imagined and expanded Miami Beach Convention Center. Welcome to the show, David. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you. I’m a big fan. You’ve done a great job with storytelling and we’re delighted to have a chance to share this time with you and your readers.
I want to go back in the history books and ask you as a young man growing up in the South because you grew up in the South, what does Black history mean to you?
I grew up in a very small town in Georgia. It’s a town that had 300 people if you counted everybody close. It was a very small community and there are some advantages and disadvantages. The first ten years of my life were in the ’60s and so much unfortunately and unfortunately was happening in the ’60s and the South of Georgia. I got to live it almost daily and see the world with brand-new eyes. As a young boy, seeing the world days that we are to be lifting uplifting and days to be very afraid for our country, our neighbors and what was going on in this country.
It was a moving time to see all that happen. We talk about the year 1968 and it’s remembered for so many things, fortunately and unfortunately but I live that as a young influential boy. I was absorbing all of it and trying to find my place in the world. Those days and years shaped me because you can’t walk that path of the history of the South of Georgia, of my little town and Black history was called history.
It’s a profound time and having grown up in it as a kid being able to witness some of these things, how did that shape your view of the experience? I can imagine it did have an impact on you.
There was the internal experience, which I’ve touched on. The external experience was a drive and not so much because of necessarily Black history but my neighbors and my fellow Black neighbors, it was a drive. We got to try to get out. I hate to say it but we got to get out of this place. Somehow we got to escape the past and the confines of where we living even though we loved it. It was love and nurture. There were no opportunities there. All the kids in my school and all my neighbors and older kids were all trying to figure out, “How are we going to get out of here? How are we going to make it?
What were your greatest influences back as a child?
For a variety of reasons, I was into sports. In a small town, it’s all hands on deck. You don’t try out for the basketball team. There are only six of us.
You have to figure out what your position is.
To that extent, the coaches that I had. I went to my school as a young athlete in seventh grade. It was the first integrated team and that’s real. A chance to join a team and learn to play with others, teamwork and camaraderie. These kids were forced together for the first time in the seventh grade, sadly because that was that generation. That was that time when schools were being integrated for the first time but on the sports field and playing field, we were all one. If you were good, you could be green, if you were my guy. I’d like to joke around but I will tell you that after that seventh-grade accommodation, our team’s got a lot better. I love some of my new teammates.
When you look back at that journey, you have these defining moments in life. Was there a moment that you can pinpoint to say, “Doing this propelled me into this leadership role that I’m in?”
It probably happened later in my life because growing up in this tiny little town trying to find the pathway out, getting to college was a big part of that and a blessing.
Where did you go to college?
I proudly went to the University of South Florida, which is not known for a lot of football success, basketball success or sports success. I went to a historically bad football school. To me, it was that moment of graduation from college. Those reading have that blessing. They teach you in college to be a success. You graduate. You prepare to be the vice president of marketing for your first job. You then graduate and nobody’s hiring a brand new person out of school as vice president of marketing.
You’re almost trained and prepared for the reality that doesn’t exist as a brand new in the workforce trying to get employment. That was a shocking moment for me when I wasn’t landing that high-profile super job title job. I struggled for several months and weeks to find a job and my first job was in desperation because I needed to pay the rent. I got a job at Xerox selling copiers door to door because I had to get a job.
I never thought of it that way. It’s so true. You leave college thinking you were ready to take on the world because of all this stuff and then nobody’s hiring someone green out of college. It’s like, “What do I do?”
That was a meaningful time for me. Commission sales and knocking on doors. I had to build a lot of confidence in a very compact time and a lot of stress. I had to learn how to cope with stress. Xerox provided great training and it wasn’t too long after that that my marketing degree because I didn’t want to pursue a career. My first job in marketing was at a highly respected nonprofit organization. It’s the United Way.
That’s what got me to move to Miami where I took a job locally with the United Way, a nonprofit organization. The Convention and Visitors Bureau was a nonprofit organization. The board of directors, the governance and the community-facing aspects of a nonprofit organization. That was my big break but it was stimulated by that shocking realization that at 21 years old, you’re nobody.
Unless you get a contract with a sports team, you are nobody. That led you down to beautiful Miami and the Miami Beach area. What was that like? It was a transition. You went to college in Florida but coming to Miami from a small town was a little bit of a culture shock.
First, when I went to Tampa, I thought Tampa was as big as New York. I was star-struck by relatively tall buildings. They had a professional football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I thought I had hit it big. I’m in Tampa. You come to Miami. With no disrespect to Tampa because Tampa is now one of the most beautiful cities.
It’s blown up. It’s grown so dramatically but back then, Tampa was a pretty sleepy town compared to Miami. That was quite a shock. The diversity of Miami, you can’t get word from it. We’ve learned that it’s one of our greatest marketing assets. We promote the diversity of our people, heritages and cultures. That in itself has a rather insulated little farm boy where most of the kids were all in the same class system and income status.
To come to a city that had everything like opulence and sophistication, good and bad. It was also a very interesting time in Miami’s evolution in the early ’90s. A lot was going on here whether it was the Mary Ellen boat lift. The Haitian refugee crisis was the first of those waves back then assimilating cultures in a city that had been a historic Southern city but had got half of its population, not necessarily from the South. That was a lot going on back then.
The city of Miami has transformed too. I lived downtown in Miami in the early ’90s and it’s different. It’s not the same place.
You fit right in because only beautiful people get to live downtown. However, you have to put your dog or puppy in a baby carriage. You got to have them.
I got to have a puppy in a baby carriage. That whole waterfront wasn’t built up when I was there.
Miami continues to evolve and that’s what’s so exciting. I don’t want this to sound like a cliche but we like to think that we’re making history here every day as we continue to grow and evolve. The course of course is we do the right things for history’s sake. How are we going to be judged and make a difference moving forward?Miami continues to evolve, and that’s what's so exciting. Click To Tweet
I do love Miami as a community. How does the work that you’re doing with the Convention and Visitors Bureau highlight, aside from the strengths of the diversity, all the wonderful communities we have like Wynwood and Brickell? We have all these little amazing communities. What are some of the things that you as a leader there are doing to highlight these communities?
I’m very proud of our team. I’ve been here only a year and so I’d love to take credit for a lot of the great things that are happening here. I’ll take credit that I recognize them and I continue to position and put the right people in the right place. We’ve got some real superstars on our team.
Don’t gloss over that. That is a huge strength of a leader to be able to recognize talent and put them in the right place. Kudos to you.
Everyone, hopefully, on your network and circle knows of the work Connie Conard is doing. She is our Senior Vice President of Multicultural Tourism and Development and it’s exactly that. It’s promoting the tourism aspects of our destination and the multicultural and diversity that you mentioned. Whether it’s Little Havana, Little Haiti, Wynwood or the arts districts. What we also know is that tourists love to go to the beaten path.
Destinations all over the country are taking advantage of those discoveries, the hippest and newest neighborhoods. I remember when South Beach was a new hip neighborhood and then it was Wynwood. Other neighborhoods are starting and that’s what the visitor experience is all about. Also, the diversity of the experience helps you then attract the diversity of visitors that you want because we need to have more than one kind of visitor. We have to have different age groups, generations, tastes and desires. The more diverse we are, it gives us the more diverse palette of offerings to extend to our visitors.The diversity of the experience helps you attract the diversity of visitors. Click To Tweet
The thing with Miami too is you can’t come to Miami for a quick visit. We have sports, art, music and food. The food in Miami is crazy because of all the diversity that we have. We have cultures. I’m trying a new Dominican restaurant where you can get Cuban food, Dominican food, Haitian food, Trinidad food and Jamaican food. They’re all Caribbean but they’re all different. We have all the Latin, Caribbean, European and American influences. It’s all even Native American influences here. It’s everything. I love it. Everybody asks me, “Why don’t I live somewhere else?” I’m like, “You just don’t understand Miami.”
I’m going to stop talking. You keep going. You’re our best salesperson.
I’m telling you. You have to come for at least two weeks so you can enjoy the food, the culture, the museums, the art, the history and everything that we have going on down here. To get back to you, the community leader and an influencer, what is your highest priority for the city?
Success has a lot of different forms. You were a numeric number-driven organization, tourism and convention sales. You never can get too far away from the numbers. It’s like a basketball coach. You never get too far away from the one-loss record. We want to be successful. We’ve been setting records for the last several years, which has been exciting. One of the top three is based on the hotel numbers.
One of the top three destinations in the country in terms of growth year over year and the average daily rate because you want to be able to maximize that revenue and attract visitors. You could fill up every hotel room if you sold them for $50 a night but we’re looking to sell those hotel rooms for much more at the end of the day. Those sophisticated visitors that you talk about that love to go get a great meal and love to catch a great performance are interested in the diverse offerings of the community.
That’s the perfect combination that makes the cash register, keeps employment high, gives business opportunities for entrepreneurs and helps us become a thriving place. Also, success breeds success. That’s all in the blender in the formula. As a CEO of a tourism promotion organization, we want to do all that we can that is resulting in people converting to be here. “I’ve heard about Miami. I want to go there.” “I’ve read about Miami and Miami Beach. I want to go there.”
“They had a successful convention there. I want to take my convention there.” “I want to play here because I’ve heard it’s a great playground for what I’m into.” You also quite frankly want our destinations. It’s well that’s welcoming and unfortunately, that perhaps is more important. With all that’s going on in the world, you need to make sure of that welcoming inclusive destination. That gives you so many different opportunities as opposed to being one-dimensional. That platform has unlimited potential.
My job is to make sure that we’re plugging in and pushing all the right buttons and providing the resources to amplify and tell our story. Tell a diverse story to a diverse audience. At the end of the day, people who come here, you can’t mislead about what they’re going to experience. They are more on the value proposition and that’s incumbent on all of us in the industry to make sure that we’re at the highest levels of customer service. Quite frankly, the experience can sell itself when you’re talking about that great meal or that amazing sound that you’re hearing. It’s that diversity that makes us a little different than a lot of other places in the United States. Not only for one thing thankfully but it’s a melting pot of a lot of stuff going on.
The only thing we can’t control is the weather, which is typically always good but we have those in the wintertime. Every now and then, we’ll have a cold front come in.
It was 58 one night and everybody here’s complaining. 58 in Toronto was called summer.
That’s the only thing we cannot control with the user experience. Sometimes we might have a little bit of rain but for the majority of the time, we’re beach weather. You can come to Miami and experience that but I want to ask how difficult. You came in 2021. We were getting over the pandemic. Things were starting to get back. They were starting to get their legs again. How has the recovery from that been for the city with tourism and convention?
A challenge can be an opportunity. Challenge has been getting our workforce fully staffed again. Many people either were either laid off or left for lack of business or left the industry, they talk about the Great Resignation that happened in this country. We are having to take a real hard look at ourselves because as we’re succeeding and thriving, we’ve got to make sure that we are providing great job opportunities for the workforce.
Especially, the supportive workforce. The men and women who are serving the meals, attending the bar, cleaning our rooms and carrying the luggage. That workforce has to be in place so that visitors have a great experience and challenge. It’s good news and bad news. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country but we need to get more bodies here working because we’re growing so fast.
We opened six new hotels and a lot of new restaurants are opening because this destination is on fire and it’s exciting. Restauranteurs are moving here from New York. Investors are moving here with their businesses. Miami’s a real current success story but we’ve got to have the backbone, the men and women who are working in our industry. That’s one of the initiatives that we have a lot of focus on because it gives us an opportunity to expose careers to a workforce, whether it’s a new college graduate.
I was talking about my experience. If you get into the visitor industry, you can have an amazingly successful career. It’s not only being at the front where everybody starts. You can be in management, finance, marketing or sales. Everybody’s looking for these dynamic people. You can get that experience and that exposure here in Miami.
Miami is open. If you’re looking for a great place to live and work, come on to Miami. I’m turning it into a commercial. I set my sights on Miami back in the ’80s with Miami Vice and all of that. I was like, “I’ve got to go live in Miami. I love it.” I set my sights on moving and I’ve never wanted to move anywhere else, ever. There are so many exciting cities in the United States but I’ve always wanted to live in Miami. This is where I am.
I can’t speak for other cities that I haven’t as intimately experienced but Miami is constantly reinventing itself. Part of that is by necessity and the tremendous opportunity that reinvention brings. It’s such an exciting time. What we like to joke about here is whatever you’re into, you can get into it in Miami. It’s a constant evolution and back to the theme, it has to be an evolution where everybody’s at the table. Everybody has an opportunity. We need and want everybody. It’s not only a corporate and cultural commitment but it’s smart business. Some of the things they’re doing here are fueling that success and I’m incredibly proud of our team and our destination.Whatever you're into, you can get into it in Miami. Click To Tweet
Being in the tourism industry is a great place to have a career. You don’t set a policy or do any of those things but is there something around how the wages are and what’s happening in that area of employment?
There is a stigma that some of the entry-level jobs in hospitality, dishwasher or line server, unfortunately, have historically been relatively low paying. There’s a whole issue of tips. Tips can help supplement but that’s been used many times unfairly against workers. Some laws have been put in place that has changed that but more important than legislative change, which unfortunately in this country we always seek legislative change, this is a smart business decision. Higher and retained talent.
What I’m most excited about is as we watch the hotels, when the biggest hotel increases the hourly wage, all the other hotels have to keep suit or they’ll fall out of competition. It’s the industry fueling smart competition to invest in your people. If there’s one thing I learned from COVID, it is the same people that got us through and out of COVID are the same people that are going to ride us over with sunset to the next victory.
We got to invest in your people. We’ve learned that now more than ever because people can go with technology. You can go live and work anywhere. We need to make sure people want to come to work every day, are excited, respected and given opportunities for growth and the ability to use their skills in very exciting careers like tourism, hospitality, marketing and evolution.
You are speaking my language. People development is important. People aren’t to be herded in and herded out. You have to be able to invest in them. One of the biggest lessons from COVID is realizing they have a choice and they are making that choice by walking out and finding other opportunities. Investment is key to retaining your talent. As we’re talking about communities and Black History Month, I wanted to know from the GMCVB point of view, what are some of the things that they’re doing to elevate these communities that we were talking about, the Black communities and other plans to that work?
Shameless plug on our website, MiamiAndMiamiBeach.com. We have a whole section on Black History Month and a portal into all the things that we’re proud of every day of the year. It’s because it’s not just the month of February that we’re focusing on. We want the month of February to amplify and draw attention but one of my favorite examples is we’re a major arts and cultural community. As you mentioned, that art is reflected in our cuisine. That diversity is in our music, food, people, heritage, neighborhoods and traditions.
All of that rich and thick melting pot is also encompassed in the arts and culture like the community and neighborhood festivals. Also, the different ethnic festivals and the country festivals of the different diverse people who’ve Miami home from South America, Europe and all over the country. We’re using that canvas, no pun intended. We’ve got a great program. It’s award-winning and called The Art of Black Miami.
It’s using art in its broadest sense, like fine art, painting art or sculpture. It’s art in its broadest context. The Art of Black Miami is using black artisans and not only Black. All the Latin cultures, Afro-Latin or Afro-Caribbean, you name it. It’s all this melting pot of using art as a platform to expose the diversity of our artisans, history and offerings. I’m proud of the art of Black Miami because it gives us a solid foundation. It’s not a gimmick. It’s real. It’s one of the most successful things we’re doing.
We also have Jazz In The Gardens coming up too.
All of your audience should plan to be here too.
Whether you can make it in 2023 or not, it’s every year in the month of March here down in Miami. We have Art Basel and Art of Black coming down to the end of the year. Make plans to come down for sure and enjoy it. I want to shift gears a little bit and do a little fun rapid-fire with you. I’m always curious when I speak to other leaders, what is the biggest leadership mistake that you ever made that rocked your confidence a little bit or that you were a victim of?
In a rapid answer, half kidding, I love to joke around, the biggest mistake is I didn’t notice I was making a mistake. Quite frankly and seriously, leaders have to realize that they are capable of making a mistake. You can’t let your ego get out there where you think you’re impervious to failure or making a mistake. I have been guilty of that, especially at a younger age but probably as I’m searching for a rapid answer because people matter so much and as leaders we recruit people.
My handful of biggest mistake was inviting the wrong person to join our organization. The intimacy of our workspace is never going to change. You got to have people that are collaborating and getting along. I won’t name names but I might have had my hand in a couple of bad choices. You talk about the consequence and the pressure because you have a responsibility to everyone to bring in talent and bring in people that can work well together and stimulate one another. When you do come up short, it’s discouraging. You care so much about recruiting the right people to get along with everybody else that’s in the organization for that same reason.
That’s why I got a job because that’s what I do. I help make sure the right people are in the right teams. It’s very important. I’m glad that you said that. What is the best leadership advice that you’ve ever gotten that you still implement?
I have to remind myself of this every morning. I do my little meditation. I have to be a good listener. You have to take time in the rush and the hecticness and the high volume. It’s like a rollercoaster. You get up. You have that cup of coffee. You’re off to work. You get on the rollercoaster for 8 or 9 hours and then you’re off the rollercoaster. During that chaos, you got to find time to listen. You got to hear what’s happening and what people are telling or asking you. You have to listen. When you’re so busy leading, if you’re not listening, you’re not taking advantage of a big tool in the toolbox.As leaders, if you're not listening, you're not taking advantage of a big tool in the toolbox. Click To Tweet
Active listening skills are very important to have. Have you ever seen the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks?
If you were a castaway on a deserted island, what are three things that you wish washed ashore or were airdropped to you and one cannot be a cell phone?
What I would hope for initially is an unlimited supply of wine. You have to get through the day. You’re on a deserted island for god’s sake. I’d rather have wine with special friends but if it’s only me talking to a soccer ball, I need some wine. An unlimited supply of wine is highly sought after.
You got that. You had a buried treasure of wine that was there or washed up from a cargo ship, cases and cases of it so you’re good.
I acknowledge the cell phone piece. I’m trying to think of an instrument back in the day it was easy that could listen to music. Let’s say we could get an old cassette tape deck.
Also, a transistor radio.
Give me the iPhone. I promise I won’t use it as a phone but let me listen to my iTunes playlist.
You don’t have a signal anyway but then we’d have to figure out batteries and plug. It has to be something that can charge in the sun. It can be recharged. What is the third thing?
This is very strategic by the way. This is what CEOs do. I’m going to reserve the right to choose the third thing until I experience it a little bit more because I don’t want to assume how good or bad it’s going to be. I want to have my options down the road.
You’re like a genie is granting you three wishes. You’ll use up 2 and save the 3rd.
To see how things work out with the first two. With unlimited wine and my playlist, I might be pretty content.
Since you mentioned playlist, if you were a song or a song title, what would that be and why?
It would be one of my first favorite songs, a song that is as popular now as it was then. That’s Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours. Listen to the words. It’s as real now in my life and as important as it was when I was ten years old listening to it for the first time.
The last question I got for you is what are your top three favorite books or tell me what you’re reading now.
Unfortunately, I’m not a huge reader. I almost don’t want to say this because it would sound contrived but the Bible. I respect others that don’t feel that way but that’s got to be your top favorite one. Beyond that, does Sports Illustrated Magazine count?
Yes. There are some great articles in there.
I am a sports junkie.
You’re like Indiana. They say in Indiana, there is nothing else to do but basketball.
The third thing, believe it or not, is I love to cook. I’m proud of the abilities that I’ve honed and developed over the years. I’m overly confident. Proud is not the right word. I don’t want to be cocky. I love cooking for others. I love it when people come, eat my food and have a great reaction. Cookbooks are of tremendous interest to me because I’m always learning about accommodations.
For me, going to the grocery store is like going to the library. I’m constantly thinking of what I’m going to create and I love to try new things. I love going to a restaurant, eating a meal and then going home and trying to replicate that recipe with ingredients and experimenting. A cookbook is a book and it’s a big part of my life when I’m not working.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
Probably from growing up where I grew up in the South and we had a river on one side of our house, a farm and a lake on the other. Fish was a staple. I was the youngest of seven children. While the bigger kids after school went and worked on the farm, when I was a scrawny little thing, my job was to go fish for dinner. I talk about sales pressure. You’re talking about Xerox training. You’re down there trying to catch 7 or 6 fish and you’ve only caught 4 and it’s getting dark. That’s a lot of pressure.
You hear your mom up on the hill whistling and you’re like, “I’ve only got four. I need seven.” I love freshwater fish and being in Miami, it’s seafood. I love to fish and there are so many things you can do. Fish is like a canvas. You can poach, broil or bake it. It’s a sponge that takes all the ingredients, flavors and spices. You can have so much fun. If you make a mistake, it is like making a mistake. You can have so much creativity.
You can go wrong with fish if you don’t know what you’re doing. Thank you so much. I enjoy cooking too. I do love cooking and it’s one of the things that I do very well and I enjoy eating.
We’ll have a show one day where we get in the kitchen and you have your guests and you will make a meal.
Also, cook. I need to do that because I do love cooking. I love to watch the Food Network. It gives me ideas. I take something from this person and take something from that, put it together and make something different. That’s how I’m creative.
If I’m on that island, a fishing pole would be helpful.
Maybe a spear for spearfishing. You’ll be right at home. You love fish. You can fish, cook and eat. You’re good. Thank you so much, David. I appreciate that. Is there anything that I did not ask you that you wanted to make sure that you shared before we sign out?
No. Thank you. I am a huge fan of what you do. Thank you for what you do and the difference you are making. Thank you for your love of Miami and your collaboration with us. Let me take this opportunity. For anybody on your audience that hasn’t been to Miami and Miami Beach in a while, please come back. A lot is going on. Check out our website, MiamiAndMiamiBeach.com for all the reasons you should be here. We’ll see everyone down the road. It’s been a real blessing to be with you. Thanks for this opportunity.
Thank you so much. With that, I’m going to encourage you to lead yourself, your teams and your organization with audacious confidence. Until next time.
About David Whitaker
For more than three decades, David Whitaker has distinguished himself as a respected industry leader, both in the communities he has served, and on a global travel, tourism and convention industry stage. Named President and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau in 2021, the appointment was a homecoming for Whitaker, who previously held GMCVB leadership positions from 1990 to 2007. Recently, Miami was named a host city for the 2026 World Cup, and the destination was featured in Florida’s 2022 Michelin Guide – underscoring his commitment and the GMCVB’s role in positioning Miami-Dade County as a true “live, work, and play” destination for visitors and residents alike. Upon his return, the GMCVB has also taken on a significantly increased responsibility to successfully market and book future conventions and events at the newly imagined and expanded Miami Beach Convention Center.
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