2018-12-01 / Spotlight

Talking Tourism

with CPCVB executive director Fritz Smith

Fritz Smith would be happy if everyone stopped referring to the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitor’s Bureau as “the visitors’ center.”

“We do more than service visitors,” says Smith, who became the organization’s executive director earlier this fall. Though it’s headquartered, and in charge of, the uniquely interactive visitors’ center across from Beaver Stadium on Porter Road, the organization has a much broader sales and marketing mission.

“Centre County has a great tourism product, but I think its story hasn’t been told as far and wide as it can be,” Smith says. And that’s one of the things he intends to change.

The Washington, D.C. native has spent his entire career in the hotel and tourism industry, most recently with Visit Philadelphia in a similar role but on a much larger scale.  

As CPCVB’s executive director, Smith has been tasked with a few things up front, one being how the organization uses technology and social media. “And I think trying to show we are more than Penn State and not being so reliant on that as a draw. Capitalize on it, and even find more ways to capitalize on it, but really try to convey that we’re more than that.”

He says the chance to run his own destination marketing organization is what brought him to Happy Valley.

“I’d been a strong No. 2 position for a long time at a couple of big organizations, and I felt like I was ready to run the ship myself,” says Smith, whose wife, Leslie, and dog, Soupy, will relocate to the area by the end of the year. He had gotten to know this area when he worked for the state’s tourism division, and he liked what he saw — and what he didn’t see.

“Like a lot of people I’m concerned about the polarization of this country and I look at Centre County as a place that’s a little bit different in that it doesn’t seem to be experiencing that to the same degree,” says Smith. “I think (the polarization) is having an effect on destination marketing, because increasingly that governs not only where people want to live but where they want to travel. You’re starting to see people in those redder places not wanting to go to the bluer places, and vice versa. What I’ve always liked about Centre County is that it’s one of the few places that’s not overtly one or the other.”

Capital Industries Fritz earned a degree in political science, but got sidelined into an entirely different career. “I grew up in Washington, D.C., and even though it was unintentional, I think psychologically I was being influenced by the two major industries there, politics and tourism. My intent was to go on to grad school, but one of the first jobs I got was at the Washington Hilton. And from the day I walked into the hotel I just fell in love with the business. And I’ve been in the hospitality business in one form or another since then.”

Small Town, Big Charm For many years he lived in Philadelphia and commuted to Harrisburg while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Community of Economic Development. “I like the fact that it’s a little bit slower and it takes me five minutes to get to work. I’m not hearing cars honking and sirens all night,” he says of his new digs. “It has not been a difficult transition here. People here are really nice — and I think that’s part of our sell, because how people treat you when you go to a place is very important.”

Play Ball “We want to capitalize on the sports legacy here. I’d really like to establish this as a sports destination, a great place for high school tournaments, regional, even national tournaments,” says Smith, who would like both sports complexes currently in development to work together in that regard.
“Penn State football is sort of the entrée into that, but I think if we can turn this into a year-round sports destination, not just at the collegiate level but younger, I think there’s a great opportunity there.”

Meal Ticket “One of the real trends in the tourism world is that food is increasingly a driver. It’s more of a city phenomenon but … I’d like to see us get there. People love the farm-to-table concept and local breweries, so I want to capitalize on that movement. I’d love to get to the point where we can tout the restaurant scene in the county. I’d like to get some chefs from other parts of the country interested in coming here and starting some places and helping accentuate the county craft food movement.”

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