Three vie to be Hernando County's next tourism development director

BROOKSVILLE — Three finalists competing to become Hernando County's next tourism development director sat for interviews before the county's tourism board Tuesday, even though there is some question as to whether the job will even be available.

One by one, the candidates vying to replace retiring director Sue Rupe made their pitches before the board with Rupe, business development director Michael McHugh and human resources director Cheryl Marsden also presiding.

Culled from nine applicants, they included county recreational director Harry Johnson, Tampa hotel sales manager Cherie L. Smith and former community theater marketing director Tammy Heon, who lives in Zephyrhills.

While all three candidates agreed that the county would likely continue to face a tough tourism market in the sluggish economy, they also said there were plenty of ideas that needed to be explored in order to assure Hernando will remain as a top destination spot for visitors.

Heon cited the need for more aggressive marketing through the bureau's website, as well as through social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"It's essential these days because tourism is 24/7," said Heon whose resume lists 11 years of experience in tourism marketing. "People want information and they want it fast."

Johnson, who has headed the county's recreation department for 10 years, said attracting more amateur sporting events such as softball championships to Hernando fields would be a year-round boost for the area. He also favored efforts to intensify advertising and marketing to attract more eco-tourism to the area.

"The beauty of our county is our greatest strength," Johnson said. "We need to continue to develop ways of attracting people who come for that."

Smith said her 30 years spent working as a tour director and in hotel sales management and marketing uniquely qualified her for the job. She suggested a grass roots approach to attract tourists through national and state tour companies. In addition, she would create training programs for local business owners that would enable them to be better ambassadors for the area.

Whether the tourism director position will even be filled remains to be seen.

Earlier this month, newly sworn-in Commissioner Wayne Dukes told the commission that the retirement of Rupe, who earned $90,778 a year in salary and benefits, presented the opportunity to look at other alternatives to run the office.

McHugh said he has been working on three different models that he will present at a Dec. 14 workshop between the County Commission and the Tourist Development Council.

The first model would have the tourism bureau contract all of its marketing and event planning to outside sources. Another alternative would provide for minimum staffing for local events, but specific advertising campaigns would be done by an outside firm. The third option, McHugh said, would be to leave things as they are, with a tourism director overseeing staff and volunteers.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

Three vie to be Hernando County's next tourism development director 11/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 7:16pm]

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