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NCC tourism chief Willoughby to step down

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WILMINGTON – Sarah Ridgway Willoughby, the longtime executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, announced Tuesday afternoon that she will be stepping down from her position at the end of June for a planned move to Florida.

Sarah Willoughby | PHOTO COURTESY OF GWCVB

Willoughby has been director for more than 12 years of the 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. Her departure comes as Wilmington is experiencing unprecedented national and international attention as President-elect Joe Biden hosted months of campaign and transition events around the county.

Willoughby first shared her plans with the bureau’s executive committee in February 2020, with plans to depart in about a year. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism industry, leading to a tremendous drop in the funding for the GWCVB, which almost entirely depends upon public accommodation tax on hotel stays.

Over the past year, Willoughby has been a strong proponent for Delaware’s tourism industry along with the Delaware Hotel and Lodging Association (DHLA). Bill Sullivan, chairman of the bureau’s board of directors and a colleague on the DHLA board with Willoughby, called her “an asset to our tourism community.”

“We are very sorry to see her go. She has built a highly successful marketing program, strong community bonds and a dedicated team of staff members that will continue to build upon the foundation she has laid,” he said in a statement.

A search committee has been established and a job description and duties will be posted by the end of January, officials said. Applications will be accepted until March 1.

The next director will take over a bureau that is still grappling with the pandemic, but also seeking to take advantage of the so-called “Biden effect.” With intense interest in the new president and his ties to Delaware, the bureau is expecting to roll out a promotional campaign tying itineraries to the life of the 46th president after the pandemic subsides.

Meanwhile, Willoughby is moving with her husband, Gary, to Florida, where they expect to do some bass fishing and she expects to find another position. The move south is a bit of a return homeward for Willoughby, who grew up in Mississippi and met her husband in Alabama.

They moved to Delaware for Gary’s work in insurance and she found a job at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, the historic du Pont family estate near Rockland.

“When I interviewed, I knew nothing about the du Ponts other than some things I had read. Decorative arts were not my forte, nor was gardening, but I knew marketing. So, they took a chance on me,” she recalled.

Willoughby ended up spending 11 years as director of tourism development at Winterthur, before joining the GWCVB in 2004 and taking its helm four years later. In her tenure, she built the bureau’s passport ticket promotion, fostered its bus trip program, completed upgrades to the bureau’s website and social media channels, undertook the Brandywine Valley replacement signage program, and sought to advocate for the tourism industry as a whole.

She said her proudest achievement was lobbying to save the bureau in 2017, when the state’s Joint Finance Committee sought to end state funding for the bureau’s operations amid a budget deficit. Her appeal was heard by state legislators, who reversed course in the wee hours of the last day of that year’s legislature to retain the funding in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget and ensure the state’s destination marketing organizations continued operations.

Willoughby said that she was particularly passionate about promoting New Castle County’s tourism industry because of the misguided belief that all of Delaware’s tourism potential was tied to its Sussex County beaches.

“While the beaches do a great job, there are many cultural attractions and a variety of state and county parks here well worth seeing,” she said. “I was determined to make New Castle County shine because it just had so much potential.”

By Jacob Owens

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