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Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau names new executive

Katie Tabeling

Jennifer Boes has been named Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GREATER WILMINGTON CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU.

WILMINGTON — As Delaware starts to reopen for business and tourism after months of coronavirus pandemic restrictions, New Castle County will enter a new era with a new chief marketer.

Jennifer Boes will lead the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau as its next executive director, effective June 1. Sarah Ridgway Willoughby, the current executive director, will assist with the transition until Willoughby retires at the end of the month.

“What I find so exciting about being appointed to this position is that we have so many great things happening at once, especially from a tourism viewpoint, and many people aren’t aware of them. There is a great opportunity here,” Boes told the Delaware Business Times. “I know I have extraordinarily huge shoes to fill and Sarah has done a phenomenal job over the past 12 years, she has been here and built an amazing team.”

Boes, a Georgetown native, has a 25-year career in marketing and public relations, including boutique firms like Bard Associates in Philadelphia and Marshall Communications in Maine. While she divided her time between Lewes and Maine for 15 years, Boes focused on strategic planning for tourism campaigns. 

She eventually returned to the First State for full-time work and started as GWCVB director of marketing, communications and media relations in January 2020. 

When Willoughby announced she would step down from her position in January, GWCVB advertised the position online and via word of mouth. Out of the initial 130 resumes received, the bureau narrowed the candidate pool to 10 qualified candidates before Boes was selected.

“Jennifer possesses a deep knowledge of our tourism regions and has significant experience in tourism strategic planning,” GWCVB Board of Directors Chairman Bill Sullivan said in a prepared statement. “We are confident she will bring the bureau to the next level, building upon the strong foundation Sarah has built over the past 12-plus years.”  

Formed in 1978, the GWCVB is a nonprofit bureau that serves as New Castle County’s destination marketing organization, promoting the region’s tourism offerings to leisure and business travelers, as well as meeting and convention planners. 

Boes rises to the top of GWCVB at a pivotal moment, as the recent $100 million Riverfront East revitalization plan was announced, renovation of the Delaware Natural History Museum and the ever-growing spotlight because of the Biden-effect all stand as tremendous draws to the Wilmington region. But the nonprofit, funded almost entirely on the public accommodation tax on hotel stays, was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, like other organizations in the tourism industry.

“During COVID, we really had to change our focus to target a local area, so people could see what would be in their own backyard,” Boes said. “I am cautiously hopeful. We are uncertain of this picture, but I think all we can do is forge ahead and be hopeful.”

The GWCVB had been primed to launch a $300,000 marketing campaign before the pandemic, but when funding came to a standstill the board decided to leave the visitor center and lay off three staff members. To stop the bleeding, Willoughby and her team focused on marketing the Wilmington area to people who relocated for jobs and healthcare workers looking for hotel rooms.

New Castle County’s lodging tax was down approximately $1 million, according to Willoughby, and corporate Wilmington’s slow return to the offices was still dragging out the financial hardships of the pandemic.

“Our main focus before was working Thursday through Sunday to bring in leisure travelers. And while our hotels said that we’re doing great, we need to bring people in from Monday through Thursday for the conferences, for the New York lawyers, the suits to make that happen,” she said.

While she contends with bringing back white collar workers for business trips, Boes will also have to leverage the marketing platform that President Joe Biden inadvertently built when he kept his presidential campaign mostly local and accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination at the Chase Center on the Wilmington Riverfront. When national reporters were in town, Willoughby slipped them her card in hopes that it would make its way into the hands of tourism writers.

It worked. Food & Wine Magazine and Travel + Leisure  ran pieces about the area. The GWCVB also prepared a Biden itinerary so visitors can experience things in New Castle County that are connected to the president.

“It’s truly an exciting time because we’ve gotten some national attention for our food scene, and the Biden effect has really shone a light on us and our region,” Boes said.

When she takes the helm, Boes said she wants to forge stronger relationships with economic development and tourism organizations in Delaware to get a higher return on investment when it comes to marketing. She will also start developing strategic plans to boost midweek hotel stays in Wilmington as well.

Willoughby, who will move with her husband to Florida, said she plans to continue work and continue visiting Delaware in her spare time, specifically Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, where she first started working when she arrived in the first state. Looking back on her formative career in the First State, she remembered that her husband, a Delaware native, only went to the Hagley Museum and Library for a school trip.

“Wilmington was warm and welcoming to me, and I just wish Wilmingtonians were more welcome to Wilmington,” she said. “We have so many great things here, but you see a lot of Delawareans focusing on New York and Philadelphia and hear them say ‘there’s nothing to do here.’ There are so many amazing things in our backyard, and I hope people pay more attention to them.”

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