Destination innovation: Tourism director reflects on her career

Debbie Kovalik plans to retire in February after working 28 years as the first and only executive director of what’s now Visit Grand Junction. Among its other endeavors, the tourism marketing organization operates the Grand Junction Visitor Center — according to Kovalik, the only facility of its kind in Colorado located along an interstate highway. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
Debbie Kovalik plans to retire in February after working 28 years as the first and only executive director of what’s now Visit Grand Junction. Among its other endeavors, the tourism marketing organization operates the Grand Junction Visitor Center — according to Kovalik, the only facility of its kind in Colorado located along an interstate highway. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Debbie Kovalik has devoted nearly 30 years to enticing visitors to the Grand Valley while also bringing respect to an industry she considers a vital component of a healthy and diversified economy.

Looking back on her tenure as the first and only executive director of Visit Grand Junction, Kovalik considers her efforts and the efforts of those with which she’s long worked successful. Among other accomplishments, the tourism marketing organization branded the area as Colorado’s wine country and was almost prescient in foreseeing the growing importance of the Internet in marketing and launching the first destination website in the state.

The work has been rewarding professionally and personally, Kovalik says. “My job has been my life. And it has been an incredible series of blessings.”

Kovalik plans to retire in February and do some traveling of her own — visiting grandchildren, reconnecting with old friends and enjoying adventures she says she’s yet to discover.

But Kovalik says she’ll leave Visit Grand Junction well positioned to continue to succeed. The staff and volunteers are as professional, creative and competent as any in the industry, she says. And the area they pitch with its wineries, outdoor recreation and hospitality remains attractive. “I really see a very bright future.”

Barb Bowman, who as division director has worked at Visit Grand Junction nearly as long as Kovalik, says the woman who hired her has done well in combining her experiences in media and advertising with her ability to recognize opportunities others couldn’t.

Moreover, those abilities fit well with her own background in the travel industry, Bowman says. “I think we’ve made a pretty effective team together.”

Kovalik was hired in early 1990 as the first director and at the time only employee of a newly formed Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Kovalik had previously worked as marketing director for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. She’d also worked for an advertising agency and before that television stations in Colorado Springs and Denver. She earned a degree from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where she studied journalism and marketing.

As it turned out, her experiences and education prepared her well for a career in tourism marketing, she says. Kovalik was familiar with writing news releases, handling television interviews, buying advertising and the other tasks that go into tourism marketing. “It just suited me perfectly.”

Using revenue from what at the time a newly enacted lodging tax, Kovalik hired an administrative assistant. She then hired Bowman to help with sales.

What started out with a small staff that intiallly worked out of shared office space at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce has since grown into a operation with a full-time staff of nine and an annual budget of more than $2 million.

The Grand Junction Visitor Center opened in 1994 near the interchange between Horizon Drive and Interstate Highway 70 and was subsequently expanded. The center remains the only facility of its kind in Colorado located along an interstate highway, Kovalik says.

In 1995, Visit Grand Junction launched the first destination website in Colorado to tap the growing use of the Internet to market the Grand Valley.

Taking advantage of a growing wine industry to distinquish the Grand Valley from other tourism destinations in the state, Visit Grand Junction branded the area as Colorado’s wine country.

The organization subsequently won a Tourism Industry Association Odyssey Award for a destination marketing campaign country based on that branding. The award is for the travel industry what the Oscar is for the film industry, Kovalik says, and affirmed the level of professionalism Visit Grand Junction had achieved.

Visit Grand Junction later partnered with Amtrak in creating a “wine train” to bring visitors from Denver to Grand Junction for a weekend of  touring wineries, sampling wines and — as Kovalik points out — buying a lot of wine. It’s a promotion that’s continued for 13 years.

Grand Junction City Manager Greg Caton praised Kovalik for her efforts over the years. “Debbie has done a great job of putting Grand Jucntion on the field with the big players in tourism. Her name has become synonymous with tourism in the region, and her knowledge of this industry will be hard to replicate.”

Bowman emphasizes that successful tourism marketing requires teamwork among staff and volunteers — along with the help of local and state partnerships. “It takes a village. But it also takes an estute leader to understand that.”

Kovalik has been that estute leader in putting together what Bowman describes as a “fantastic team.”

Kovalik might not play as direct a leadership role in enticing visitors to the Grand Valley. But she expects tourism to remain an important component of a growing economy that also features such drivers as Colorado Mesa University and a regional health care hub.

“It’s just going to be a vital part of the future.”