Betsey Howell has walked across Centre County countless times in her 31-year career as executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau. With her work in strengthening the region’s tourism efforts, it’s easy to forget it’s a map spanning the floor of the bureau’s hall.
But for the Bald Eagle Area High School graduate, Centre County — whether spread on a map or the rolling landscape of central Pennsylvania — has been home, a place to work and play for a lifetime. It’s a sentiment she’s shared with more than 50,000 others. And that was just in 2015-16, according to the bureau’s annual report.
According to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, travel spending in Centre County accounted for an about $720 million boost to the region’s economy in 2014, marking the fifth-straight year of growth. Several of those efforts have been spurred by the CPCVB with Howell at the helm.
“Accepting the offer to be the executive director of the central (Pennsylvania) Convention and Visitors Bureau turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “It gave me bragging rights as the spokesperson for the region I love: the place where I was born and raised.”
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Below, Howell, who is retiring on May 12, shared how a few small steps can turn into a journey stretching across time and the region she calls home.
Q: What has it meant to serve the community in the executive director role for more than three decades?
A: I am honored and humbled that back in 1986, the board of directors had confidence in my ability and promoted me to lead our organization. Over the years, their confidence and support helped lead me to become the president of the PA Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus.
Q: What are some important things you’ve learned during your career?
A: One thing I learned early on is that it is imperative to partner and work together to get things accomplished — it’s not about “me” it’s about “us.” Working with our various boards and members throughout my years leading the organization, we have become one of the top Destination Marketing Organizations in the state. We worked closely with (former) Sen. J. Doyle Corman to successfully pass legislation that would permit more counties in Pennsylvania to implement a local lodging tax, which ultimately provided the needed funding that enabled us to partner with Penn State to build and operate the Centre County and Penn State Visitors Center. Additionally, partnering with the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce led us to having a satellite visitor’s center at the Train Station in Bellefonte.
Q: What are some other accomplishments you’re proud of?
A: In 2002-03, we worked with the county commissioners and the local lodging community to increase the lodging tax and successfully launched the Tourism Grant program. To date, this initiative has provided more than $3 million to local nonprofit community groups for their tourism projects. Partnering with a variety of businesses and organizations, we played an integral role in the development of the Festival of Trees, Central PA Tasting Trail and Happy Valley Culinary Week. After a major volleyball tournament decided to relocate to another city, we worked with Penn State to create the area’s own volleyball event, which brings thousands of visitors to the area for a minimum of three days every year, and that equates to thousands of dollars being spent in our local businesses on overnight stays, meals and more.
Q: When does the board hope to have a new director in place?
A: The board is planning a nationwide search and hopes to have my position filled within the next six months.
Q: Any parting thoughts as you step away?
A: When I first joined the bureau, there were just two of us and our promotional budget was somewhat limited. Now, thanks to the lodging tax, we employ 10 full-time and eight part-time hardworking and dedicated people. We attend a variety of trade shows, do sales missions, advertise nationally, host travel writers and more. We serve on boards and committees that seek to improve the quality of life in Centre County as well as protecting our natural resources and historic attractions.
Our purpose is to increase visitation to the area, which puts heads in beds, butts in seats and feet on the floor in stores, and that all generates an economic boost to our local economy. It has been an honor to have worked for the people of Centre County. I am proud of all that we have accomplished and I wish the bureau continued success.