New Leadership

VisitMadison Inc. hires new tourism director for retiring Lytle

Thomas brings vast experience
in media and tourism work

(December 2016)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

It has been 21 years since a tourism director has been hired in Madison, Ind. So when executive director Linda Lytle announced she would be retiring at the end of this year, the VisitMadison Inc. tourism board, by all accounts, took very seriously the task of replacing her.
After several weeks of pouring through many resumes and conducting dozens of interviews, the board narrowed the list of applicants to eight, and then to three, before eventually hiring Tawana Thomas as it new director.
Texas native Thomas, 54, has forged a long career in tourism related jobs, most notably as a morning TV talk show host for 16 years in Cincinnati in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as tourism director for nine years in Elk City, Okla.  – a town of 13,000 residents — the same size as Madison. Elk City is home to the official “Route 66 National Museum,” a big tourism draw, she said. The biggest event in Elk City was the annual Rodeo, held each September and featuring some of country music’s biggest stars.

Photo by Don Ward

Tawana Thomas began her new job in Madison on Nov. 7.

“That was a huge event that we spent a lot of time planning,” said Thomas, who grew up in Breckinridge, Texas.
Prior to leading the Elk City tourism office, Thomas spent one year as the Executive Director of the Wichita Falls (Texas) Convention and Visitors Bureau. She attended Sinclair Community College for Travel & Tourism Management in Dayton, Ohio, and participated in Leadership and Executive Management training during her career.
During her 28 years living in the Cincinnati area, Thomas became a local celebrity by co-hosting the Insight Communications’ morning talk show, “Northern Kentucky Magazine,” with the late Dick Von Hoene, who gained notoriety playing the Cool Ghoul, a Friday night horror movie TV host that lasted more than four decades. Von Hoene died in February 2004.
Thomas most recently lived in Florence, Ky., where two of her three daughters and two grandchildren still reside. Her oldest daughter served in the U.S. Air Force and now resides in Stuttgart, Germany.
Thomas said she was in between jobs and spending last summer living with one daughter and two grandchildren when she learned from a friend that the Madison tourism post was open. Even though Thomas had never before visited Madison, her friend encouraged her to apply. Thomas began researching the town and visited there one day in June.
She then researched the city’s Internet website and decided to call Andrew Forrester, the city’s Community Relations Manager and a tourism board member. She introduced herself over the phone and discussed the tourism position. She later made another visit to Madison to meet Forrester, who introduced her to several community folks. Since the two were Rotary Club members, Forrester took Thomas with him to a Rotary Club meeting that evening, where she met more people.
By then, Thomas said she was hooked on Madison and eagerly pursued – and eventually won – the position of tourism director after four rounds of interviews and outpacing two other finalists, all three of who met with local residents during a meet-and-greet night in early October organized by the tourism board.
A few days later, Thomas was offered the job. She started her new position Nov. 7.
“It was a grueling process. It didn’t happen as quickly as I wanted it to, but I think the amount of time the board took to make its decision showed just how serious and committed they were in finding the right person for the job. I am honored and very excited that they chose me.”
The core selection committee consisted of tourism board members Cara Fox, Dee Comstock, Lindsay Bloos and Forrester. “They really did their homework,” Thomas said, noting that all her references were contacted.
During the process, Thomas met Lytle, whom Thomas calls “my almanac. She has been so gracious and sharing. Not everybody would have been so sharing. I’ve been like her little shadow.”
Thomas said Lytle has helped “educate me on Madison and its history. It’s very clear that she loves this town.”
Lytle, meanwhile, said she is very happy with the board’s selection of Thomas as her replacement. “I think the community is going to be very pleased with their new tourism director,” she said. “We had many resumes, and hers just rose to the top.”
A retirement party is planned to recognize Lytle and marketing director Ann Mulligan, who also is retiring at the end of this year. The come-and-go retirement party will be from 2-6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center.
Forrester said of Thomas, “From the moment I met her, her energy and enthusiasm for Madison was apparent. And you don’t always find that level of enthusiasm from someone coming from out of town. She loved the community and wants to help promote it.”
In a statement issued announcing Thomas’ hiring, Fox, the tourism board president, said, “After several months searching, interviewing and evaluating applicants, our board feels confident that Tawana can step in and move our Madison-Jefferson County tourism goals forward. She is very qualified and brings years of experience to the position.”
In the months following Lytle’s announcement that she would retire, she lobbied the board to increase the salary to help attract a strong candidate. In the end, the board approved a first-year salary of $50,000 for Thomas.
Since joining the staff, Thomas said she has met several leaders of various community organizations. “I have been so inspired by each of these committees. They want to work together. Everyone has been so welcoming. They want community input and participation. Not all communities have that collaborative spirit.”
Thomas said her primary goals as director will be hiring a part-time marketing person who will also handle social media; work with the festival directors who guide efforts to stage RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival, Madison Ribberfest and Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art; and help promote Madison’s historical sites.
“Since being hired, there hasn’t been one morning that I haven’t woken up and felt at home. There’s so much opportunity. I’m so excited!”
Thomas comes to Madison at an opportune time, considering the recent Envision Jefferson County economic efforts and Madison’s status as one of eight national finalists for the America’s Best Communities contest. The final round of the contest takes place next year, with the winner receiving $3 million, second place earning $2 million and third place collecting $1 million.
VisitMadison Inc. is the destination marketing organization for Madison and Jefferson County, Ind. Operating on a $412,300 annual budget, its mission is promoting local tourism sites and businesses while playing host to more than 300,000 visitors each year. 

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of the RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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