You are no stranger to the tourist attractions of Bedford County—any special ones in particular?
I am from Bedford and grew up here. I spent a lot of time on the Peaks of Otter—my grandmother worked in the gift store, so we visited her often. We would have dinner in the restaurant, walk around the lake, and fish and play in the creek. I also spent a lot of time at Smith Mountain Lake with family and friends who had a boat and taught me how to water ski. There are a few long-standing annual events in Bedford such as Centerfest and Christmas events (parade, Elks Home lights) that I went to starting as a little girl and continue going to today. The National D-Day Memorial was dedicated on June 6, 2001 and while I wasn’t able to attend as I was living in D.C. at the time, I made a special trip home a couple of weeks later to see it. I’ve always been a big supporter of local events and wanting to be involved in the community. I developed a love of hometown at a young age.
What type of educational path did you take?
I attended Radford University, graduating with a degree in Media Studies (Journalism) and also took some marketing classes. The degree ties in well with writing press releases, editorials, newsletters, designing ads, and other things I do as part of my job. After college, I moved to D.C. and worked for trade associations, becoming involved in marketing and event planning, which involved a lot of domestic travel to major cities across the U.S. I loved to travel and would always add on personal free time at the end of each conference to stay and explore the location. I really enjoyed it, but after being gone for eight years, I really started to miss “home” and my family. I moved back in 2007.
Where did your career take you next?
I took a job with the National Kidney Foundation for about three years, which involved marketing, developing new events to generate awareness and raise money, and community outreach. Then there was a job opening at the National D-Day Memorial (one of Virginia’s top attractions), and I went to work there in 2011. My first position was in visitor services, so I spent a lot of time on the front line communicating with guests and tour groups, answering questions about the attraction, and providing additional information about Bedford. I learned the operational side of the attraction as well as working with volunteers. After doing that for a couple of years, I moved to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation office, and my job focus shifted to marketing, development, special events, and fundraising.
And that’s where you really got connected to the tourism industry?
In my new role with the Memorial, I started working more closely with the Bedford tourism office as well as Lynchburg’s tourism office, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and Virginia Tourism Corporation. I had to learn how to sell D-Day as a tourist attraction, which fit into the bigger picture of attracting people to Bedford to not only visit D-Day, but also to explore other area attractions and support local businesses. I also wanted people in the community to feel a connection to the Memorial, and for local businesses to help support and promote our events. I made sure the Memorial became a member of the Bedford Artisan Trail when it launched in 2014, and I have always been active in attending community events and supporting local businesses. I think it really dawned on me a couple of years ago when I was attending a Virginia Tourism Summit, surrounded by tourism industry professionals, listening to the various topics and challenges, that this is where I belong, this is the type of job I would like to have, this is where I could really thrive. Shortly thereafter, there was the opening for my current job as Director of Tourism for Bedford County, a dream opportunity for me.
What is the overall goal of your position as Director of Tourism?
It is promoting Bedford as a destination. The goal is to increase visitor numbers year over year. I want to make more people aware of Bedford and we need to determine how to best tell our story. How we can make it more experience-based? That is what will set us apart from the competition. Experience is everything; people want experiences.
Another goal is to stay connected with the community and support events. I would like to see more collaboration amongst the assets, such as the artisans and wineries, and attract more people from the Peaks of Otter into our historic downtown.
And I would like to work more with the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce and their tourism-related businesses and neighboring counties to cross-promote assets. I’m really trying to connect the county, which is the fifth largest in Virginia.
What types of projects or initiatives are you working on right now?
We are currently involved with a destination branding initiative, which will include the development of a new logo, brochure, ads, videos, enhanced gateways, and ultimately a new website. We will also use the research results to develop future marketing plans and be able to better define who we’re targeting through our advertising efforts. The ultimate goal is to make Bedford a destination that people want to come to and spend more time visiting while increasing visitor numbers. The tourism department has never been through this process before, so it’s an exciting time.
We are also working closely with the D-Day Memorial on the 75th anniversary next year. The 70th Anniversary in 2014 attracted more than 10,000 people, which had an impact on the entire region, with visitors staying in local hotels and B&Bs, as well as dining out and visiting retail shops and other attractions. The Memorial (and Bedford) also received national and international media attention. The 75th has the potential to be even larger with four days of events planned.
Agri-tourism is big in this area, as is outdoor recreation. I would like to do more to promote both of these areas. I would also love to promote Bedford as a wedding destination. Bedford is home to approximately 20 wedding venues, and they are attracting people from across the U.S. as well as internationally to get married here. Many I’ve talked to are already booked for 2018 and are booking for 2019. What hurts is lack of lodging options for groups such as this. It would be ideal to have a business class hotel as well as a boutique hotel in our downtown, which then may also help us attract groups who would like to hold meetings, reunions, and other types of events here.
What are your biggest challenges?
Tourism is a very dynamic industry—no two days are the same. You have to be adaptable because priorities change and turnaround is usually very quick. It also has become a digital world, so staying on top of the latest trends and being strategic with advertising dollars is important as well as getting out the message on how we can serve the community and promote local events and businesses. We do our best to market our assets, but it’s important that the assets are also marketing themselves, which includes being active on social media and ensuring we have their current information at the Welcome Center.
People want to see immediate results from your efforts, but usually it takes about a year or more to show an impact. Data has to be collected and analyzed. Much of that is done through the Virginia Tourism office.
I wouldn’t change a thing. I embrace my responsibilities and service to the county, and strive to exceed expectations.
How would you describe your leadership style?
The operation here is two-fold—out front we are managing the Welcome Center (open seven days a week) assisting visitors and residents, while our back office is focused on the overall tourism marketing program. We have a small team that works together well. We work hard, but also have fun and enjoy being around each other. I want my team to like coming to work every day. I also want them to feel valued. I try to identify opportunities to help them grow in their position because we should be constantly learning. The days go by fast, especially during our busy months of April-December, so we stay connected with regular staff meetings. They also know they can come to me any time with questions or concerns. I like for our Welcome Center customer service staff and volunteers to know they have an important job, as they are often the first impression for people visiting Bedford. We are the marketing arm of the county and here to educate visitors on all that Bedford has to offer. There really is a lot to see and do here, more than most people realize. That’s why we encourage anyone visiting Bedford to start their trip at the Welcome Center.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
You can’t be all things to all people. Insulate yourself from naysayers. Be true to yourself and your vision.
What is a piece of advice you would like to offer?
Follow your passion. LOVE what you do!
What types of things do you do to stay organized?
I keep an online calendar in addition to a planner, and have found it helpful to manage advertising deadlines with a dry erase board in my office. I also keep my documents, photos, and video files well organized on my laptop, trying to be very deliberate when creating folders and naming files so that I can find things easily. My guess is that I have more than 5,000 photos on file currently, many of which I have taken over the past few years at various events and attractions. These are very helpful in creating ads, social media content, promoting events and businesses, etc. I am also always on the lookout for new photos taken by local photographers and even visitors. When I find something I like, I reach out and ask for permission to use it.
What’s life like for you outside of work?
I have a son that is seven who is active in sports and Cub Scouts so I spend a lot of time attending those events. I enjoy relaxing at home, grilling out, and spending time with my husband, family, and friends. When I have the time, I like to travel, attend music festivals, and go to sporting events. I also enjoy photography