New chief named for Tourism WW

Michelle Liberty will start in her new post Monday. She takes over for Michael Davidson, who resigned in December.

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WALLA WALLA -- A marketing professional who spent more than a decade working at one of the region's biggest entertainment destinations and followed it up with a period in the wine industry has been tapped to lead Tourism Walla Walla.

Michelle Liberty has been named executive director of the agency whose mission is to build awareness of the Walla Walla Valley. Her first day on the job will be Monday, tourism officials said.

As the agency's second executive director, Liberty succeeds Michael Davidson, who resigned his post effective Dec. 16.

Tourism Walla Walla board members were reportedly notified of the decision early in the week. The agency officially announced the appointment this morning.

"Walla Walla is a special place to me, and this opportunity presents an exciting challenge to combine my love for the area with my passion for marketing," Liberty said in the announcement. "There's a lot of positive momentum surrounding the Walla Walla brand right now, and I look forward to building on the organization's past successes while seeking out new opportunities to position Walla Walla among the West's top leisure travel destinations."

Liberty was selected from a pool of about 60 applicants from across the country. Nine had been selected for telephone and face-to-face interviews. Though originally expecting to find an executive director from outside of the area, tourism officials said Liberty's experience, including at Wildhorse Resort & Casino and Precept Wine Brands, combined with her familiarity of the Walla Walla Valley gave her the edge.

"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, the Union-Bulletin's advertising manager, said in a prepared statement.

He said Liberty will be making the "upper end" of the advertised annual salary range of $60,000-$80,000. He declined to say the specific amount. At the time of his departure, Davidson was paid $74,500 per year.

Andrew Holt, Tourism Walla Walla's tourism services manager, has handled the daily operations of the agency in the interim. He will continue in his regular role under Liberty. The agency also employs one other worker who staffs the Destination Walla Walla visitors window.

For the last three years Liberty has operated her own marketing consulting firm, Attitude. She served as marketing director for Wildhorse Resort & Casino between 1998 and 2009. After that she worked nine months as director of retail and consumer marketing for Seattle-based Precept Wine Brands. She oversaw the opening of tasting rooms in Walla Walla as part of that position.

She joins Tourism Walla Walla with two major projects on her plate, said board member Michele Rennie. A regional signage initiative designed to better guide visitors through the community with more cohesive signs is nearing its last and most expensive phase, and a remodel of Tourism Walla Walla's website is on the horizon. Those, Rennie said, will be among the first projects for Liberty.

She said the daily focus will also continue to be on Tourism Walla Walla's three-pronged mission to create awareness of Walla Walla outside of the region; continue to foster and build a community that delivers on its promise to visitors; and work to enhance the lifestyle for those who live here permanently. It's an approach that "requires a lot of balance," Rennie said. An important aspect will be communicating with both stakeholders and local residents.

Tourism Walla Walla is funded through lodging tax dollars paid when visitors spend the night in local hotels and beds-and-breakfasts. The agency is coming off a banner year for tourism. In 2011, visits to the Valley grew to pre-recession levels with room revenue up to $116.24 million by last November. The agency has also launched its new brand -- "Share Walla Walla." The slogan was conceptualized and will be branded by Bend, Ore., agency DVA Advertising and Public Relations, which will handle marketing and promotions for Walla Walla.

Rennie said the agency is in a strong position thanks to Davidson's work over the last six-plus years. He "put us in a good position. This new chapter, I think, will raise our profile even higher," she said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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