Jim Browder, the new president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, considers himself lucky to have found his vocation early: He loves to travel, and when he got his first job in the hotel industry, at a Hyatt on Hilton Head Island, S.C., he knew he was set.
Browder, 55, had already worked his way through college in a variety of hospitality jobs. Before he came to Lexington, he was vice president of sales and marketing at JHM hotels, which has 40 properties across the eastern United States and a five-star luxury hotel in Surat, India.
Browder, an avid Apple Computers fan and iPad user, reads four newspapers a day online — the Herald-Leader, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post — as well as trade, technology and gadgetry magazines and AAA's Go.
He and his wife of 30 years, Becky, have visited every state except New Mexico.
"We're real keen on seeing the United States," Browder said.
He spoke with the Herald-Leader about his history and Lexington's future in tourism. Questions and answers have been edited.
Question: You got into the hospitality industry as a very young person. You found your calling there.
Answer: I worked my way through college (at Radford University in Virginia). ... I worked at bars and restaurants and things through college. I was manager of a small sandwich/pizza place shortly after I graduated. I started working at Hyatt hotels in Hilton Head Island. It was my first hotel job, in 1981, and I never looked back.
Q: How did you come to work for the organization for which you were working, JHM Hotels, before you came here?
A: They have 41 hotels. When I started with them they had 24, I believe. The majority of their hotels are select-service hotels (hotels with limited amenities). They wanted to expand into the full-service side. ... I had the full-service and independent sales and marketing experience. We started growing the full-service portfolio for them.
I was a military brat (Navy) very young, obviously, so I did a lot of moving, moving, moving, and then I got into the hotel business, which was moving, moving and moving.
Q: What motivated you to apply for this particular job? You were looking for a challenge, but at the same time, did you wonder, is this the challenge for me?
A: It's not that much different than what I was doing before. When I worked for JHM Hotels, we had our own integrated-services marketing department. That fell under my responsibility. ... But it also had revenue managers, a call center, our own advertising, our own Web designers. It's very similar to what we are doing here — versus marketing a city, we were marketing 41 hotels in eight different states. The strategies are a little bit different, but the process is very similar.
So it wasn't that big of a change. Plus I have been on a few CVB (convention and visitors bureau) and chamber (of commerce) commissions and boards. ...
The location was probably more important to me than anything. There are a lot of CVB jobs out there, ... but this is the only one I applied for in the last few years.
We have our little checklist. We like second- and third-tier cities. ... I really liked the size of Lexington.
Lexington, having a Southeastern Conference college here, was important. We like college sports. The uniqueness of having the ability to sell horses and bourbon in addition to everything else was really appealing. ...
David Lord (the former head of the Lexington CVB) left this place in great shape. I've got some big shoes to fill because of it.
Q: What's on your plate in terms of where you would like Lexington to be in, say, five years?
A: The World Equestrian Games was huge for this city, and it's great to continue to build off of that. I think there's a large focus on our part to certainly add more horse-related events to the city, or at least play a major role in getting those. The (Kentucky) Horse Park brings in some of those directly. ... We are trying to be a supportive partner with that. ... We're really focusing on the equine industry outside of WEG.
We're trying to get back to the convention business. I think everybody was so focused in making WEG a major experience; now we have to regroup and say, "What do we do?"
So the equine industry is extremely important. We're going to throw a little more support to the Kentucky Horse Park. It is our only 365-day-a-year event around here. We want to move it to the forefront.
The second thing is there's a huge opportunity not only with the current convention center, but whatever they end up doing with the Rupp Arena/convention center situation down there. I think there's a lot more convention center business for the city. We'll be focusing on segments we may not have focused on in the past.
Q: Can you identify some of those segments?
A: I look at it from a standpoint of, it's more a matter of dividing up our lead-generation opportunities. ...
In the past what we did was look at leads generated for our outside salespeople to follow up on. We're going to outsource a little bit of that and look for possibly two companies: one that will drive single-hotel groups directly to the hotels; ... we will have a second organization driving leads to our people trying to build for "citywides," which will need multiple hotels. The purpose of that is to increase our business long-term and short-term at the same time.
Lexington was a little bit spoiled in a sense. Because of WEG, they were fortunate enough to avoid part of the recession as it related to the group business, because they had such high demand for what was going on in 2010. ... Lexington is just now experiencing what a lot of cities have been experiencing for a couple of years.
Q: Have you spoken with Mayor Jim Gray about the Rupp Arena/downtown master plan yet? What is his input on this?
A: I think it's been more philosophical than specific. It's very important for whatever they do down there to be community-centric. If the community likes it, the tourists will like it, and if the tourists like it, the conventions will like it. ...
I think we're definitely on the same page in making it community-centric, making it attractive for downtown. ... We need a downtown that supports the two hotels we have, possibly a third. ...
One of the No. 1 things meeting planners look for is walkability.
The convention center, the hotels, the restaurants and the shops — with this footprint that they're playing with right now, there's an opportunity to really make it something special.
Q: How do you go about luring more drive visitors versus convention visitors during the recession?
A: Actually, it's an advantage to be in a drive market during a recession. The typical consumer, when money gets tight, they fly less, and they start looking for vacations a little closer to home. As we continue to present ourselves as a great two- to three-day place, ... it's a great opportunity for us.
Q: I notice that your Web site is evolving. How are you using social media in your pitch?
A: We actually participate pretty heavily in social media. We incorporate a lot of video — "LexTreks" is a very popular YouTube site where we do little mini-commercials. YouTube is used quite effectively; we also do Twitter and Facebook.
I think it's important that it's not always just about Lexington. Lexington is a phenomenal city, but the counties around it make it a phenomenal destination.
The entire Bluegrass region here, ... it's very important that we work with them about the attractions around us, whether it be Shaker Village or the artists in Berea, the horse festival that they have in Georgetown. I've been to the beer cheese festival in Winchester, and we can certainly incorporate the distilleries because bourbon is really, really popular right now.
Q: In terms of numbers of drive visitors and convention visitors, where are we now and do you have particular numerical goals?
A: I don't have the exact number in terms of leisure guests right now. We are very meticulous in how we measure our group business. ... For example, Alltech has an event here, it takes three hotels, we don't count that. We count what we generate. In prior years, our team has generated about 60,000 citywide room nights a year. Our goal is pretty aggressive; in the next five-year period my goal is to get it to 100,000.
We're going to try.