Owensboro is seeing more and more women take on general manager and director roles in the tourism industry, with females across the local area leading their staff at hotels and tourism-focused facilities, such as the Owensboro Convention Center and Owensboro Sportscenter.
It hasn’t always been this way in the tourism industry, according to those who’ve worked their way to the top. Over the last several years, however, the women in these roles say they’ve seen an increase in females securing top leadership roles in an industry that’s historically been dominated by men.
Laura Alexander was promoted to general manager of Spectra — the providers of Venue Management and Food Services and Hospitality to the Owensboro Convention Center and the Owensboro Sportscenter — in July 2018.
“I was the only female director until two years ago, and we’ve since added two more,” she said. “It’s always exciting to get back from two conferences where you’re seeing more and more women in the industry. A lot of companies are trying to promote women within their own companies these days.”
Alexander said it hasn’t been challenging to be a female leading the charge. In fact, she and several of the other women serving as general managers say they try not to think of their gender when taking on these roles.
“It’s been a smooth ride as a woman in this industry. A lot has changed,” said MJ Maxley, general manager of the Owensboro and Evansville Fairfield Inns. “I provide what I can provide, and I don’t worry about having to compete with any male GMs. I just do my job the best I can.”
According to Alexander, being in the hospitality industry is not a normal 8-5 job.
“On weekends, I just bring my kids to work with me,” Alexander said. “They’ve just become part of the culture here. People understand that mom is working, and she’s working hard to ensure that her kids have the life she wants for them.”
For other female general managers in the local area, their experience hasn’t been quite as smooth. Quality Inn General Manager Jennifer Wimsatt said being a woman has had its challenges.
“I think it’s harder. You have to have a backbone and compete on the same level [as the men],” she said. “Women have become way more vocal, but the stigma is still there. It helps to be a very outgoing person — you have to be able to put yourself out there.”
Those in the industry all agree that Owensboro tourism has come a long way in the last few years. From seeing an increase in guest and event numbers, to hearing more and more positive feedback from out-of-towners about the city, these women say they expect the growth in tourism to continue.
“Our community has grown leaps and bounds in tourism. The convention center and renovation of downtown has offered more for people to do, for people to see,” Wimsatt said. “In the last 10 years, Owensboro has offered so much more for people, and I see it growing immensely in the future.”
Alexander said the convention center will soon present a fiscal report that shows how much more traffic is coming through Owensboro than before.
“Things are definitely getting busier,” she said. “There’s still a lot of people outside of Owensboro who don’t know our convention center exists, and our goal is to make it known.”
Shelby MacConnell, general manager for Hampton Inn South, said the support system between the women in these local roles has created a lot of camaraderie between the management at these different hotels.
“I definitely think that bringing us all together, we have a unique perspective on how to better tourism in our area,” she said. “I think we have a good support system.”
Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown General Manager Sharon Nesmith took on the role in June 2019 after working as director of sales beforehand.
“It is extremely exciting to see the concentrated focus on ensuring Owensboro and Daviess County tourism continues to grow and develop,” she said. “Interacting on a daily basis with our hotel guests, my staff and I can speak with pride about the different attractions and special events that are available in our hometown.”
Nesmith understands the bias with women as she served as the “token female” for a service company she worked for in the 1970s. These days, however, Nesmith said the tourism industry has come a long way.
“I like to believe I was a pioneer in proving there are no male/female ‘jobs’ and continue that mission today,” she said.
Other women serving as general managers and directors in the tourism industry include Lauren Worthington (Holiday Inn Downtown), Jackie Meadors (Wingfield Inn & Suites) and Jessica Beckmann (Owensboro Sportscenter).