Name: Sarah Focke
Title: Convention and Tourism Manager
Organization: Kearney Visitors Bureau
Location: Kearney, Nebraska
Birthplace: Freeport, Illinois
Education: Bachelor of Science, Travel and Tourism, University of Nebraska Kearney
• Sales for Adam’s Mark Denver Hotel, Denver Colorado: 1997-2001
• Meeting Planner for Great Western Association Management, Denver, Colorado: 2001-2002
• Kearney Visitors Bureau, Kearney Nebraska: 2002-present
“People say ‘you need to be a people person’ about almost every job,” said Sarah Focke, tourism and convention manager at the Kearney Visitors Bureau. “But in this job, you need to be a people person because you are your community’s expert. You’re the point person — the face of that property you’re working for.”
Focke’s enthusiastic personality makes her a natural fit for repping Kearney, Nebraska. The town, located in the central part of the state, is best known as home of the annual Great Sandhill Crane migration, which draws 40,000 visitors from 64 countries over a six-week time frame.
“We see people from all over the United States and around the world, and you have to be able to connect with those people,” said Focke. “It’s really rewarding to know people want to come to your destination, and you’re there to tell them all about it.”
Focke grew up in Freeport, Illinois (population under 30,000) and said she always knew she was destined to work in travel — preferably in a big city. As a child, she had seen her parents take vacations with company clients to destinations like Puerto Rico and Mexico. And with her own penchant for planning, she said she thought it would be fun to be in charge of organizing those trips. She pursued the idea in college, graduating from the University of Nebraska at Kearney with a bachelor’s degree in travel and tourism with internships in Lake Geneva and in Rockford, Illinois. Those internships gave her a taste of hotel sales, and she began to cast her net looking for bigger opportunities.
“In my last semester of college, I was applying at airlines, hotels, resorts — all kinds of random places,” said Focke. “I figured out that you need to be in the town where you’re looking for a job to be hired. I ended up in Colorado, staying with my former babysitter, looking for jobs in Denver.”
She settled in Denver (with a population approaching 3 million), first working at the Adam’s Mark Hotel downtown as a sales assistant and meeting manager. Later, while working as a meeting manager for Great Western Association Management (now part of Civica Association Conferences and Exhibitions), she reconnected with a college acquaintance who was relocating to Denver for an internship. He became more than an acquaintance: Sparks flew and the two got married, staying in the area before returning to Kearney roughly a year after they tied the knot.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be back in Kearney,” said Focke, who had imagined staying in Denver forever. “But there are a lot of things that change your perspective as an adult compared with being a college student.”
At first, she wasn’t sure how she’d stay in her career since towns with small tourism offices can be notoriously tough to crack.
“Somebody ended up moving, and my position became available,” said Focke. “My job has evolved tremendously over the years. Every day is different in our field: and in a small community, especially, we wear many different hats.”
Focke counts herself lucky in that she loves coming to work every day — something she advises people who are considering a job in hospitality and tourism to think about seriously.
“You’ll be happier if you do what you love,” she said. “I absolutely love my job.”
Tips from Sarah Focke
• Make connections. Relationships are so important to help you succeed.
• Take advantage of the local CVB or tourism office. They are the destination experts, and their services are complimentary! A lot of people just don’t utilize what they have.
• If you love to travel, be aware that not all tourism jobs require travel. But if you enjoy travel and are open to experiencing a new culture, tourism is a great industry to get into.