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Natalie Sullivan

Lisa Rager

Executive Director | Visit Johnstown

Briefly describe your job and responsibilities.

As the Executive Director of the organization, my responsibilities include overseeing the day-to-day operations and adherence to the annual budget and plan. I report to our board of directors. Because we’re not a large staff, I still act as editor-in-chief of much of the written content for our visitors guide as well as for other publications and printed pieces. For the events that we operate, I handle the cash management, insurance and risk management, and other administrative duties. I’m the primary spokesperson for the organization.

What does a “typical” day at work look like for you?

A typical work day is everything but typical, and far from routine, which keeps it from becoming boring. There are routine tasks like responding to emails and phone messages. I have a lot of meetings, from Zoom meetings with industry partners, to in-person meetings with my board of directors, community organizations and committees. My work day depends on the projects that we’re working on. One day I can be preparing for a board meeting, which consists of preparing the agenda, reviewing minutes, and preparing financial reports. The next day I can be proofing content for our visitors guide, blog posts, or the newsletter. Another day I can be giving a presentation on our new branding initiative, or attending a press conference or ribbon cutting. Each day is truly different!

What was your first job?

The summer after I graduated high school I worked as a trail guide at a horseback riding ranch in western Maryland. In addition to guiding the trail rides, I groomed and saddled the horses each morning, fed them at the end of the day, and helped with other farm chores, like unloading the hay wagon during haymaking season. My second job while I was in college was on the work-study program. I was part of the summer cleaning crew. We cleaned all the dorms, lodges and townhouses after students moved out, and we also prepared the facilities for conferences – making up beds, stocking rooms with towels, and then servicing them during the conference, and cleaning them afterwards.

When did you know this industry was right for you?

My senior year of college my internship (1986) was with the Johnstown Flood Centennial Project, helping with the planning of the Centennial to take place in 1989. The work captured my interest because it was an opportunity to combine my major, Journalism, with my minor, History. It also gave me a new appreciation for the history and heritage of my hometown, and a sense of excitement for all the activities and projects that were being orchestrated for the Centennial. This was a really big deal, with a lot of national media attention focused on Johnstown, and celebrity participation, including the renowned author and historian, David McCullough, and famous weatherman, Willard Scott. There was a lot of energy, excitement, volunteerism surrounding the Centennial and it stuck with me.

Briefly describe your career path and how you got to where you are today.

As I mentioned previously, I got my start as an intern on the Johnstown Flood Centennial Project helping with public relations. When I was finished my internship, they were beginning to build out the staff for the project. The director knew that I wanted to stay in Johnstown after I graduated. He offered me the position of assistant public relations coordinator. I stayed through the completion of the project.

After that, one of the project’s committee chairs worked to create a position with me in mind of Welcome Center Coordinator to continue providing visitor services for the area. This man also became President of the Cambria County Tourist Council, and we combined the operations. With his leadership and my willingness to learn, we began to build up the organization, gradually adding staff, increasing our activities, etc. So I started as a one-person shop, and we’re now a staff of six. I feel that I got to where I am today thanks to a wonderful mentor, a desire to work hard and learn, work as a team, and let me focus on my strengths and allow others to complement my weaknesses.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The favorite part of my job is promoting our area in all ways. I love to be with travel journalists, tour operators, and others visiting sites and sharing all our wonderful assets with them. I don’t get to do that as much these days because we have staff to do that now, but I love getting out there when I can, and it’s wonderful to see others appreciate our area.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

One of the most challenging parts of my job is feeling that I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do to the maximum level. We have budget and staffing limitations, so I see what larger organizations with bigger budgets are doing and I’d like to be able to do those things. Another challenging aspect of my job is dealing with the negativity that is pervasive among some of the folks who live here, who don’t appreciate all our area has to offer. Finally, it’s a challenge to deal with things that affect the travel industry that are beyond our control, like the economy, the pandemic, or natural disasters and events.

What advice would you give to students interested in your profession?

Take advantage of internship or summer job opportunities with your local destination marketing organization. Do volunteer work for your DMO. Work hard; learn everything you can; and be willing to do anything and everything…whatever needs done. Our motto here is that no job is too small.

Hone your people skills. Interpersonal communication is so important. No matter the position in a destination marketing organization, everyone is in the people business. Call the DMO in your area and ask to meet with some of the team members to learn more about their jobs. Develop and align your skill set with the positions that are of most interest to you.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I can’t think of a single achievement. Overall, I’m proud of the growth our organization has experienced in the 30+ years since I started, and the contribution that our organization has made to our area in by attracting visitors and delivering a significant economic benefit to the community. We’ve always maintained high ethical standards. We try to work with and help everyone as much as possible, and do what is right and for the right reasons. More recently, I’m thrilled that we are leading a community rebranding initiative that has the potential to help transform the area in the coming years.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m happiest when I’m outdoors: biking, kayaking and water sports, cross-country skiing, camping, hiking and walking in the woods; mowing grass and doing yard work. I also like all kinds of music, so you can find me attending a symphony concert or a rock concert. When I travel, it’s great to combine outdoor recreation with history, like biking the battlefield at Gettysburg.

What is your favorite food to make or eat?

I love seafood, which is what I tend to order when I dine out. I love chocolate, too. When I cook it’s just simple – nothing fancy or that is time consuming.

What’s at the top of your bucket list?

I hope to travel more when I retire. Alaska, New England, Grand Canyon and the western US are destinations on my bucket list. Taking a train trip through the Canadian Rockies would be fantastic. I’d also like to hold a baby chimpanzee; ride horses on a beach; and swim with dolphins.