State's tourism leader: Wilson named Kentucky's top director

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By Mallory Bilger

SHEPHERDSVILLE — From childhood, Elaine Wilson was taught that traveling should be an important part of life.

"I've been a tourist all of my life," Wilson said. "My mother believed that travel was educational. I've been to all 50 states and to numerous other countries."

Wilson took her mother's teachings to heart and fell in love with tourism. That love has manifested itself through Wilson's job as the Shepherdsville/Bullitt County Tourist and Convention Commission Executive Director — a position she has held since 1989.

Wilson's passion for Bullitt County's tourism industry recently landed her the 2007 Kentucky Tourism Council's Member of the Year award. She was was selected out of the organization's 576 members from across the state.

Kentucky Tourism Council President/CEO Marcheta Sparrow said Wilson was nominated by fellow council members and chosen by an anonymous selections committee. Wilson was selected because of her work on the council's legislative committee, as well as her work to raise funds for education programs.

"(Elaine) was an advocate and helped us greatly with some tourism legislation," Sparrow said. "She took it on herself and set up a golf outing for us to help raise funds for our education programs."

Wilson said she was surprised and flattered by the award.

"It's a nice award," Wilson said. "It was an honor because the members nominate you for the award. It was a pleasant surprise."

Wilson became the Shepherdsville/Bullitt County Tourist and Convention Commission Executive Director after leaving a corporate career in human resources. She said she was looking for a job that didn't feel so much like work something she loved to do at heart.

"I know how people travel, especially families," she said. "And I just wanted to do something on the lighter side of life . . . that I enjoyed."

When Wilson took the then part-time position, the tourism commission was a one-man office. She continued with the commission and her position became full-time in 1990.

When she joined the commission, Wilson said Shepherdsville was the only developed exit. Now each exit offers gas stations, food and many have lodging.

Wilson has been instrumental in promoting many of the county's attractions, including the Jim Beam American Outpost, Shepherdsville Country Music Show, The Knob Creek Gun Range, The Junction Jamboree, Hawks View Glass-Blowing Gallery, Bernheim Abroretum and Research Forest, and more. The county now has almost 1,000 hotel rooms that stay 70 percent occupied that's 14 percent higher than the state's average occupancy rate, with more under construction.

But Wilson has even more expectations for Bullitt County tourism.

"Hopefully all five of the exits will be developed full service," she said. "We've got 1,000 motel rooms with 1,400 people looking for somewhere to eat that's nice and they want to do something in the evenings."

There are many challenges in advancing Bullitt County's tourism industry, she said. Those include a small number of up-scale restaurants and a lack of evening entertainment during the week. Wilson said it's hard to convince a smaller community that Sunday liquor-by-the-drink sales would benefit tourism and the economy without promoting irresponsible alcohol sales and drinking.

"That seems to be a benchmark that the dining facilities want to have," she said. "We know the community we represent and they are very conservative and we are too. . . but we also want to bring more money into the community."

Bullitt County Tourism Commission President Bill Barnes said Wilson's hard work in all of the above areas has helped the community flourish.

"I can tell you that she's a very hard-working person," Barnes said. "She doesn't leave any stone unturned. Tourism is flourishing in this area. I think she's done a very wonderful job. She keeps up with all the statistics. I'm very impressed."

Bullitt County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Cassidy said Wilson's long-term commitment to Bullitt County tourism proves her dedication to the industry and the community.

"She really is very driven," Cassidy said. "And she has a love of the community. Her knowledge of tourism and its impact on business, it really is such a vital part of our economic base.

"She is representing our community well. I think that is one thing with this type of award. People know she's professional and she's representing Bullitt County not only in the state and region, but it goes on out. We're in a global market."

Wilson said she was doing what she loved and happened to get some recognition for it. For her, having tourists tell her how friendly Bullitt Countians are is reward enough.

"One of the things that makes me so proud of promoting this community is that our visitors think our people in this community are the most friendly around," she said.