A true believer Michelle Liberty takes the helm of Walla Walla's lead tourism agency

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Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Michelle Liberty at the door of the organization's offices on the sixth floor of the Baker Boyer Bank building. (March 22, 2012)

WALLA WALLA -- Two weeks on the job as executive director of Tourism Walla Walla and Michelle Liberty has come up for air from executive meetings, marketing meetings, board meetings and meetings with other executive directors of other agencies by taking another meeting.

"I've been spending a lot of time getting background," the longtime marketing professional quips between sips of coffee at Olive Marketplace & Caf. "Primarily it's to make sure I hit the ground running."

It should not take Liberty long to get the lay of the land. Selected from a pool of about 60 applicants from across the country to become the agency's second executive director, she stood out because of her experience in travel, tourism and wine, officials said. The fact that she had already lived in Walla Walla at least 14 years was a welcome bonus in understanding community dynamics.

"With Michelle, there is zero learning curve with regard to the Valley's tourism products, attributes, and assets, and she already has the contacts and relationships that will allow her to hit the ground running and make an immediate impact in the position," Tourism Walla Walla Board President Jay Brodt said in a statement.

She succeeds Michael Davidson, who resigned effective Dec. 16. He was the first executive director to lead the agency when it was formed in May 2005. Brodt said Liberty joined the agency at the "upper end" of the advertised annual salary range of $60,000-$80,000.

Already a familiar face on the board at Providence St. Mary Medical Center, Liberty was well known for the marketing work that helped land a budding Wildhorse Resort & Casino on the destination map in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She spent about a decade on the team that grew the Mission, Ore., operation from a mere casino into a performance arena and golf-course resort with lodging, tribal museum and a gamut of restaurants to please a variety of palates.

But what some may not have known was that her home base all the while was Walla Walla.

When the opportunity at Wildhorse came along in 1998, Liberty had been living in Bend, Ore. The new job came with a relocation, and she said the decision came down to two choices: Pendleton, where Liberty grew up the first 12 years of her life, or Walla Walla, farther away from Mission but with a downtown and wine industry that inspired her.

The choice to move here, she said, is a testament to her belief in the community as a draw for visitors.

"I believe in the product," she said. "That's why I was willing to do the commute for 12 years."

She counts among her favorite places to visit the Olive caf as well as Public House 124. On the weekends, she said, she can sometimes be spotted at the Colville Street Patisserie, which reminds her of her days in France, where she got her first taste for advertising and marketing as a student at the American University in Paris.

When she left the casino, she took a position with Precept Wine Brands, the Seattle-based owner of Waterbrook Winery and a number of other brands in Washington and elsewhere around the world. She opened and managed four tasting rooms in Walla Walla and Prosser, overseeing staffing, marketing, inventory, training, sales and more. For the past three years Liberty has operated her own marketing consulting firm, Attitude. Through that company her clients ran the gamut from nonprofit agencies to wineries.

The opportunity to head up Walla Walla's tourism promotions agency was too good an opportunity not to try for, she said.

She comes at a time when tourism continues to flourish in the Valley.

The agency came off a banner year as 2011 visits to the Valley grew to pre-recession levels with room revenue up to $116.24 million by last November. Tourism Walla Walla also is embarking on a new campaign with "Share Walla Walla" as the community tagline. The branding slogan is part of an integrated marketing campaign. It replaces "Walla Walla, Surprise, Surprise."

The new brand was created by DVA Advertising and Public Relations, the Bend firm hired last year to promote the community and build on its already thriving tourism industry, as well as its success in 2011 named by Rand McNally and USA Today as "America's Friendliest Small Town."

Liberty acknowledged community reception to the "Share Walla Walla" brand has been cool so far. But she said that's sometimes the case when it comes to creatively subjective concepts.

"I think this is a good starting point," she said. "I think of sharing as getting the prospective visitor to think about who they share with. It's not so much that we've got all this and we're going to share it."

Its success will be determined by results, she said. And when it comes to her approach to leadership, that's one area where her 11 years at the casino may really shine.

Data collection is an area she'd like to see improve for local tourism. The casino, she said, had constant data flow, down to every quarter in every machine.

She said she'd like to develop a more acute system for mining local tourism data and analyzing trends.

"You can say that room revenue increased over the year, but what does that mean to the community?" Liberty said. "If I can tell you that (a hotel) was able to put in a swimming pool because of it, that means something."

She sees collaboration with other agencies as a big part of her role. She also believes it's time to hone the organization's focus.

"I see this as utilizing the resources available to bring in more quality visitors and bring in results that are relevant," she said.

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