The impact of 2020 is one of the reasons Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council, is retiring after nearly 35 years. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on many industries, …
The impact of 2020 is one of the reasons Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council, is retiring after nearly 35 years. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on many industries, and the travel industry was not spared.
Over three decades, Wade weathered multiple recessions and a range of industry-disruptive changes brought about by the internet, but COVID, Wade said, was like nothing else she’d seen. She and her husband, Tim, lost a brother-in-law to the illness, and Wade came to the conclusion it was time to retire.
“You just don’t know how long you have,” Wade said.
On St. Patrick’s Day in April 1987, Wade interviewed for the position of tourism director with the Cody Chamber of Commerce. The Cody chamber paid the salary through a grant from the lodging tax.
Joe Bush, who was president of the Cody Chamber of Commerce Board, and Bob Coe, who was chairman of the tourism committee, conducted the interview.
Wade had a background in graphic design. She knew the organization had a small budget — in 1989 their budget was $160,000 with a 2% lodging tax — but she thought her skillset could be valuable to the position. She had worked with a production company doing ad design and magazine layout.
“I thought I could act like an in-house ad agency,” Wade said.
At the time, Wade said, Cody was a town people passed through on their way to Yellowstone National Park. Travelers weren’t treating Cody as a destination.
“We were just wanting people to stop,” Wade recalled.
Her efforts to promote Cody got noticed. Around 1990, the Park County Travel Council approached the Cody Chamber of Commerce to ask Wade to do for the county what she did for Cody. They would pay her — which would save the Cody chamber the trouble of applying for a grant every year — and the two entities would work together to promote tourism in Park County.
At the time, the industry was entirely different. Most people went through travel agents to book their flights, lodging and rental cars, and advertising was entirely through print media. Although they are now a rarity, she would regularly attend travel agent shows across the country to help promote Park County attractions.
Wade’s background in print advertising also came in handy. For about her first 10 years in the position, she did much of it herself — from designing ads to placing them.
“It was all print. There was no social media. There was no such thing as a website, and if there was, not many people were using it as a resource for travel planning,” Wade said.
Travel magazines were the primary source for travelers trying to learn about travel destinations. The publications had writers on staff who did nothing other than write about their travel experiences. So, the council often hosted writers from these magazines to come to Park County and write about it. Now, the council assists writers from a variety of publications.
Park County had motor coaches as it does today, but Wade said there were a lot more small companies conducting the bus trips, whereas now there’s just a few companies doing them.
Cody had a lot of attractions to sell to the travel agencies, but in the early days, selling Powell was more of a challenge. It had the Homesteader Museum as an attraction, and eventually, Wade said, Powell started marketing agricultural tours and the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center was established.
Today, travel agencies have fallen by the wayside in favor of Travelocity and Expedia, and people learn about destinations through websites.
Wade said the changes place a lot more demand on having people with broader skill sets. They have to manage social media, design websites, produce display advertising, as well as working with magazines on content. What Wade used to do by herself, she now does through vendors she oversees to make sure the content is relevant and graphically appealing.
“You’re doing a lot with all types of media,” Wade said.
Wade also works with a much larger budget than when she started. On a good year, the travel council has a $3 million budget, which is divided up between a marketing plan, a grants program and administrative costs.
With the state’s mineral industry not carrying the revenue generating power it once did, tourism has risen in prominence. Starting in January, Wyoming began assessing a 5% tax on overnight stays at hotels, motels, RV parks, campgrounds, guest ranches, Airbnbs and other lodging facilities around the state.
However, 2020 wasn’t a good year for tourism.
“We saw the lodging tax collections drop dramatically,” Wade said.
The executive director said it would have been nice to go out on a high note, after a record-breaking year, but she said the organization is in good hands. Last month, the travel council leaders selected Ryan Hauck of Murray, Utah, to fill the executive director position. The Wyoming native has a background in travel marketing.
“I like to think of it as a shiny car that’s all clean and ready to go, and I’m just handing the keys over to somebody. And you hope they don’t wreck it. I don’t think he will,” Wade said.
Wade pointed out Hauck is young and his experience in the industry has been entirely within the internet era. She thinks he’ll bring new energy and new ideas to marketing Park County travel.
“He’s better versed for the marketing of today. Undoubtedly, there’ll be some changes, but that’s not a bad thing,” Wade said.
She said the travel council’s strategy for the transition is very smart. It operates on the previous year’s collections. Though considerably smaller than most years, Hauck will already have this year’s budget and a marketing plan laid out by Wade and her staff, who have years of experience. Over the next year, Hauck will get familiar with the community and network with stakeholders before he fully takes over the reins of the operation.
“This time next year, he’ll be writing his own marketing plan. He’ll be working with his own budget, and he will have a year underneath him, in which he’ll experience the community and build those relationships with partners and stakeholders,” Wade said of Hauck. “So it may look very different this time next year.”
And though Wade is retiring, she said she’ll still be lending her expertise to the travel council, so Hauck will have her as a resource.
The recovery from the pandemic year is gradual, but Wade said that’s good in some ways since this year’s budget will be smaller. If things were immediately returning to normal, there wouldn’t be the resources available for the best campaign to meet the opportunity.
International travel will still be stymied, for example. So, Wade was able to cut a lot of international advertising from the budget or spend it in other areas where it would be more impactful.
Retirement will bring Wade more free time. While travel remains uncertain in her future, she said her main focus will be her family.
“I just want to spend time with my family, enjoy my granddaughter,” Wade said. “I’m still healthy. Tim’s [her husband] still healthy. We’ll be able to be a little more spontaneous.”
Wade gets a little choked up when she looks back on all the travel council has accomplished in nearly 35 years she’s been in the position — achievements she said wouldn’t have been possible if not for the many people who have been involved in making it all happen.
“I’ve been so blessed to have such support from my boards. The relationship with the Cody Chamber has been great,” she said. “I just couldn’t have asked for a better 35 years.”