A Q&A with Lisa Bleakley
CHRISTIANSBURG – A week into her new job as Montgomery County’s tourism director, Talesa “Lisa” Bleakley is scrambling to assemble the basics: an inventory of regional attractions, an accurate count of hotel rooms, some sort of visitors guide.
“Calls are coming in,” Bleakley said. “People are interested.”
Bleakley, 50, was hired to lead a revamped program whose last incarnation, run by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, went dormant amid an embezzlement case leveled against chamber director Shane Adams. Adams was convicted in May of improperly paying personal expenses with tax money that the county and towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg contributed to the chamber for tourism-boosting initiatives.
The new version of the Blacksburg/Christiansburg/Montgomery County Tourism Office has more oversight from the towns, county, Virginia Tech and chamber.
And it has Bleakley, a Navy veteran, adjunct faculty member at Old Dominion University and for the past 14 years, an administrator in various positions at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. There she coordinated events and managed a film office, oversaw marketing programs and helped plan regional initiatives.
The mother of a Radford University graduate, Bleakley knows the New River Valley from a visitor’s perspective. In the midst of pulling together the information that visitors want to know – What can I see? Where can I stay? – and drafting plans to draw more people to the region, Bleakley paused to share a bit of her viewpoint on her new role.
As you get begin your work here, what do you think are the most marketable aspects of the region for tourism – what are the best sights to see here? Who should we try to attract?
You can’t ignore the nature, the environment, the recreational opportunities. … From the hiking trails that seem to be everywhere, New River with everything it has to offer with rafting, kayaking, all those sorts of recreational activities – that’s No. 1 to market. …
What types of people would we be attracting here? … Why not take advantage of the people you’ve already got coming here, first. … You can’t ignore Virginia Tech and Radford University … They bring lots of outsiders, lots of visitors into the area. And normally they’re here for, you know, whether it be … orientation-type activities, graduation, games of course. … And when they’re here, they’re here for that primary reason but there’s other things they could take part in. They just need to know what they are. That starts to build a familiarity in a person that could extend out in times that go beyond the specific games or graduation or whatever. …
Just taking advantage of those people who are already coming here will be first and foremost, I think.
For years, when local places like Blacksburg would be written up as an attractive spot, much of what would be talked about would be outside the town limits of Blacksburg. With your position, are you going to be looking at places outside Montgomery County?
There are times when the visitor comes in and the visitor doesn’t see the county lines. My position is funded by Montgomery County and Christiansburg and Blacksburg, so that’s first and foremost my allegiance … And building the brand awareness for that area is first and foremost. But I’m going to have to work with the other alliances that are out there. … We need to build that (local) awareness up, then let’s lock arms and go forth with the regional brand.
How big do you think the pie is here? How much has the economy of the past few years affected that?
The governor just put out some information that a little better than $20 billion had been spent in the state in the last fiscal year, and expenditures were up like 8 percent, something like that. … And I only see that growing. People are going to travel. They may not come as far as they used to, or maybe stay as long as they once did. But they’re still going to need those recreational opportunities. And they’re still going to want to go out and see family and all those sorts of things. …
I’m sort of focusing on the leisure right now, but there are so many other segments. I come directly from the meeting side when I was in Virginia Beach. The university, I know, they have conferences. … The Inn (at Virginia Tech), they get stays there but they can’t handle everyone that would come in for some of those size meetings. So the spillover goes into the surrounding community. That was really good for the hoteliers. …
So some meetings, business, some corporate … participatory sporting events with the aquatic center in Christiansburg and some of the facilities we’ve got around – I see that could be a market to tap into. I know that already we’ve had some with the Dixie League youth baseball and some of that, but I see that there’s a great potential for that. And those guys, it’s not just the team, it’s coaches, parents, siblings – the numbers really get to be staggering.
To shift gears a little bit, my understanding is that you’re here to lead an office that’s been substantially revamped over a few years as a result of all the scandal that went on with the chamber director in the past. How do you rebuild the organization, and how do you rebuild trust?
First and foremost, my position answers to an operating board. … With this going through a quasi-government kind of structure and because of the accounting and so forth that’s got to be in place, that helps give people a better confidence that things are going to be done appropriately and they’re going to be kept apprised of it. There’s going to be monthly financial statements. … If it were my money, I’d certainly want to know where it was going. …
Coming from a government background like I have, you keep your T’s crossed and your I’s dotted. Just making sure that all those records are kept up to date and shared with the appropriate people.
And being able to have things to show. The community needs to be able to see, we’ve got a tourism director sitting there – they need to see that something’s happened. …
It’s not going to be an overnight thing. There’s a few things that are on my front burner, so to speak, and one of those is developing a strategic plan. Without a plan, you’re shooting in the dark.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669
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