By Gary Gray
Great things happen when strong relationships are sought in earnest, established and proven as genuine and maintained like a deeply valued friendship, Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Brenda Whitson told The News & Neighbor in a recent sit-down.
Whitson has headed efforts to grow a notable list of “things to do” in the area – a selection of ever-expanding tourism-focused destinations, including recreation, entertainment and sports events and tournaments now drawing wider audiences and potentially profitable returns. She has worked for decades to build those strong relationships that have, and likely will in the future, continue to pay dividends.
If anyone has the inside track on what it takes, it’s the open and friendly yet skillfully competent Johnson City native.
Neither her Southern accent nor hospitality are one bit contrived or insincere; they simply are part of who and what she is. She also possesses the ability to move from task to task and topic to topic with an ability to quickly shift mental gears, so to speak. Her appearance is professional, and her demeanor is calm and self-assured.
She also is self-made, attaining her place without leaning on heritage or privilege. Whitson went to Columbus Powell Elementary, now Johnson City Schools’ administrative building.
“At that time, I think I realized I didn’t have what everybody else had,” she said. “I grew up very poor, but my mom always showed me love and I always had clothes and shoes.
We had an African-American janitor. I can’t remember his name, but he showed the kids so much love.
“We couldn’t afford to buy a class photo. The ones that weren’t purchased were thrown out and burned. But he purposefully saved it for me. It was a selfless show of kindness, and I’m sure he was poor, as well.”
Whitson’s parents divorced, and at that time there was no access to buses to go to Science Hill High School, so she went to Daniel Boone High School.
“I had always been a ‘city girl,’ if you will, and I was a Boonette,” she said. “It was a national championship drill team. I hung around people of the upper clique, though I was poor. They had nicer homes and cars to drive. It was a big deal for me to go to Powell’s department store and get clothes – it was such a big deal.”
Whitson scored excellent grades and sang in the high school’s choir. She also became involved in journalism and helped assemble the school’s yearbook.
“I remember Jim Murphy, a civic teacher, talking about freedom,” she said. “He said ‘your freedom ends when it interferes with my freedom.’ ”
She also recalled attending the Appalachian Fair with her fellow Boonettes every night, saying it’s what “every kid did back then.” The fact is, she had never gone on vacation until she graduated from high school and went to Myrtle Beach on her senior trip.
“I wound up putting in an application at city hall, and I went to work as the Parks and Recreation’s first office manager in 1976,” she said. “I went to work for Howard Johnson, who was the first director. Those were the days of manual typewriters.”
Her duties basically including anything Johnson asked her to do, including logging in janitors at the Legion Recreation Center and popping popcorn at Memorial Stadium.
“I wore a lot of hats, and there were never two days alike,” she said. “That, in essence, made me what I’ve become. It doesn’t matter what the job description or title is, you do what it takes to get the job done.
“My mother instilled that in me. She never worked while I was growing up, but she taught me values and that all people matter. When she did work, she was a cook. She worked hard and long hours. She showed commitment.”
In 1981, she first came to the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, taking a job as the city’s Industrial Development Board’s executive secretary when it was a subdivision of the chamber. That also was the same year a hotel-motel tax was approved and the Convention & Visitors Bureau was formed.
“No more popping popcorn,” she said. “There was a different attitude. It opened up so many doors. It gave me the opportunity to meet so many people from all walks of life. You felt like you were in a place that was the pulse of the community.”
Four years in, the chamber’s office manager left and current President and CEO Gary Mabrey, who had moved up from his executive vice president spot, promoted Whitson to executive assistant. In 1994, she moved into the CVB executive director position.
“I’ll never forget sitting through that grilling interview process with Gary and local hotel managers,” she said. “I came out with the job.”
She has been in that role for 23 years. In that time she also completed her course of study at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Organizational Management, sanctioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Brenda is a person who is truly dedicated to the work of the Chamber, committed to showcasing our local and regional assets in a highly professional manner and respected among her fellow workers and her colleagues in the visitor industry,” Mabrey said. “Brenda’s core values provide her strength as she lives her life and serves not only the community, but her neighborhood, church, friends and most certainly her family.
“She fits the profile of a servant/leader. She and I have been on an adventure for a long time, and the best remains in front of us as we do what we love to do. I’m blessed to call her a friend with a capital ‘F.’ ”
Mary Ann Kinch, Johnson City Parks and Recreation marketing and events coordinator, has known Whitson for more than 20 years as a colleague and friend.
“What words would I use to describe her? Always dressed to the ‘nines,’ driven, trustworthy, dependable, caring, hardworking, dedicated and meticulous,” Kinch said. “She is one of a kind, a hospitality queen, she symbolizes all the great qualities of just a downright good person. No wonder folks who visit our city because of her efforts feel warm and at home. I have learned so much from her over the years and I’m proud to call her a friend.”
The CVB is an extension of the chamber funded largely by hotel-motel occupancy taxes. It basically is a “destination expert” which provides a wide range of services, including arranging site inspections, checking hotel and meeting space availability and linking event planners to expert local service providers. It helps recruit and sponsors events as well, such as the recent U.S. Women’s Disc Golf Championship at Winged Deer Park.
“I had to learn the hotel part of the industry, so I was always very eager to understand the hotel general manager’s side and seek their advice when I didn’t know the answers,” she said.
The successes began to accumulate following the creation of a visitor’s guide. The CVB also began looking more closely at where the area was getting its business and how to improve relationships.
“Before there was a Carnegie Hotel and Millennium Centre, there was the Holiday Inn,” Whitson said. “Those accomplishments came from relationships with people. To me, that’s the most important thing in life.”
That philosophy seems to be working. Youth sports and East Tennessee State University athletics and other programs are growing quickly. The search now is for additional athletic fields – something Whitson says she knew would take time but eventually produce revenue.
Evidence? Last year, following a commissioned study, National Association of Sports Commissions Executive Director Donald Schumacher told city commissioners that adding 10, 50-team softball tournaments could bring in $6 million a year if at least four new fields are constructed.
The CVB is looking at things it can procure in the next three years, Whitson said. She thinks youth volleyball tournaments stand to grow by 50 percent, and that softball will continue to grow. The bureau just hosted the disc golf tournament that drew 156 women from numerous states and countries. And in 2018, it will partner with Milligan College to host collegiate track and field at the Liberty Bell Sports Complex.
“To pull in these events, we always strive to do a little bit more than what we originally said we were going to do, and it all begins with relationships,” she said. “Johnson City has quite a bit to offer. I feel the city is growing, and we’re really on the cusp of doing some great things.”