As part of my series about “Exciting developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Fussenegger. Based in Kentucky, Katie is the President and CEO of ShelbyKY Tourism & Visitors Bureau.
Katie is a strong voice for tourism throughout the Bluegrass State. In late 2019, she was named the Member of the Year by the Kentucky Travel Industry Association. As one of the youngest executive directors of tourism for Kentucky, she has served on the KTIA board since 2016. KTIA represents all segments of Kentucky’s tourism industry, which has a total economic impact of over $11.2 billion.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a person with a plan and not one to generally deviate once I’ve made up my mind. However, after beginning dental hygiene school, I quickly observed that two of my greatest skills — connecting with others and the art of hospitality — were not going to be utilized to the fullest potential. After a semester of intense medical classes, I switched majors to communications and was offered an internship with my hometown Destination Marketing Organization (DMO). After only about six months of my internship, I was offered a permanent position which led to a lifelong career. Well, lifelong in the sense of my 32 years!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Interesting? Just spend a day answering the phones in our office and you’ll receive some of the craziest questions you’ve ever encountered!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This mistake happened recently. I was in a board meeting for the Kentucky Travel Industry Association. I was recovering from a cold and had a cough drop in my mouth. While trying to say, “funding mechanism,” the cough drop moved in my mouth. I made a Freudian Slip by using the other “F” word!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have an awesome company culture. Our team is glad to be at work, we work for the betterment of the community and we all believe in our product. While we don’t have budgets to match several other tourism bureaus, we make up for the difference in personality, customer service, and relationships.
Ours is also a connected team. On at least 10 different occasions, our Marketing Director Chenelle and I have dressed the same without communicating our fashion choices in advance!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Never assume you know, listen twice as long as you speak, attend everything you can to ensure you understand the full picture and never be afraid to lean into the discomfort of change. Finally, attend conferences to stay up on the latest trends and reconnect with colleagues that might be able to offer different perspectives and/or reignite your love of your industry.
Any time I’m near my breaking point at work, I try to connect with trusted advisors in the industry to work through the issues I’m facing. They always seem to shed new light on the dilemma and help me to think clearly.
Also, I always make time to attend the U.S. Travel Association’s ESTO Conference. This one-of-a-kind educational platform allows me to hear about new/innovative trends in the industry, prepare for the inevitable waves of change and to truly ignite the passion I have for travel & hospitality at large.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would not be where I am today without the distinct mentoring of several people. First and foremost, my grandfather who has been in the hospitality industry for almost 45 years and was more than willing to provide advice and guidance to me. Nicole Twigg was one of my first bosses at another DMO and biggest supporters to this day. She is a supreme professional and I am honored to have her confidence. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my very first Board of Directors who took a chance on a “green kid” right out of college to lead our community DMO and believe in my leadership. Finally, my marketing director Chenelle who continues to be one of my biggest cheerleaders and pushes me to strive and perform better each and every day!
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Innovations might be a stretch; however, I do believe I continue to push the industry to think differently about the role of the DMO. Although our first purpose is to be advertisers and marketers of our local communities to the traveling general public, I feel we play a vital role in the economic vitality of our areas. Without new monies being injected into the local economy, we would stagnate.
I also feel we are community managers and destination developers as constant watchdogs for the perseverance of our identities and think-tanks for new ideas for the visitor to experience.
Furthermore, DMO’s must think larger than the polish we promote. Our organization regularly volunteers at not-for-profit and community organizations so that our small staff never lose sight of the realities of our area. A rising tide lifts all boats!
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Certainly, a pain point in the hospitality industry, and, definitely in our area, is a lack of a qualified workforce. Many of the industry jobs are front-line and even part-time work, which makes it difficult to find employees. Add in the low unemployment rate and that makes for a major issue. By encouraging staff to volunteer at community organizations and understand issues at the ground level, they can think about this complex issue and make connections to fill those gaps. Additionally, the bureau is engaging with workforce coordinators in Kentucky to identify where our DMO can be of assistance.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
It already is! We are seeing customer service and the visitor experience diminishes. This is unfortunate. It puts a blemish on the property or community you are representing, which leads to decreased visitors.
Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?
- Competition for information is real. We must adapt and pivot our marketing messages to be concise & to the point.
- As I mentioned earlier, the lack of a qualified workforce.
- As technical advances make the world a smaller place, people will have the opportunity to experience a destination even more so before they set foot there. The information is at their fingertips.
- The voice of the DMO will become even more important in community conversations. Community planning, clustering businesses together to satisfy guests, walkability, bikeability… visitors’ expectations continue to climb.
- Content creation is a gamechanger. When I look at our budget compared to five years ago, a lot of dollars now are going to public relations and blogging.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Remote enough that you felt isolated from the outside world, yet close enough to a bigger city for entertainment and activity options. Add to that, somewhere warm, with my husband and children, on a beach.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Two main things: I would like to think I’ve shed a light by spreading the word of who we are in ShelbyKY and by taking the platforms I’ve been given to help others. For example, our team has helped and continues to assist the Shelby County Backpack Project. This organization provides over 300 meals each week to 1,500 people with food insecurity. I spread the story of the Backpack Project by using my platform when in front of lawmakers and influential people across the state. As a staff, we pick a not-for-profit quarterly to support. One of the coolest things from this work is, while benefiting those outside of our organization, we are bonding as a team.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see it be a standard benefit to offer paid time to volunteerism. Could you imagine how much of an impact that would make? We do that already in ShelbyKY with the quarterly volunteer days. We also give our team the opportunity to take time off during the week for their volunteer projects.
How can our readers follow you on social media?