Tourism leader to retire early next year

Judy Billings helped ‘put Lawrence on the map’

Judy Billings, pictured in this 2008 file photo, is director of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau. Billings announced this week she will will retire in February 2012.

The leader of Lawrence’s tourism efforts for the last 30 years announced Thursday that she’ll be retiring in early 2012.

Judy Billings will step down in mid-February as president and CEO of the not-for-profit Destination Management Inc., which oversees the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

“I really feel good about where things are at the moment, and my age just tells me it is time to move on,” said Billings, 68.

Billings started with the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1980 when the organization first began. Back then, she was a part-time administrative assistant, but moved into the top spot after the organization’s director left for another position.

“I told him when I interviewed for the part-time position that what I really wanted was his job,” Billings said.

During her tenure, Billings has been involved with numerous events, convention business, attraction of youth sports tournaments, and promoting Lawrence as a destination for film crews, most notably the 1983 TV movie “The Day After,” which portrayed Lawrence following a nuclear attack.

“Judy Billings has, in many ways, put Lawrence on the map,” Deanell Tacha, chair of the Destination Management Inc. board, said in a statement. “Visitors and tourism have increased exponentially because of her leadership.”

Billings said she always tried to take a balanced approach to increasing the community’s tourism industry.

“I personally never have wanted our town to become known as a tourist town,” Billings said. “But I do want our town to be able to take advantage of opportunities that visitors bring. We want to pay attention to visitors, and we want visitors to come to our community with money.”

In 1998, Billings, then-County Commissioner Charles Jones and others began working on the idea of winning a National Heritage Area Designation from the U.S. National Park Service for Lawrence and the role it played leading up to the U.S. Civil War.

The idea grew to include 29 eastern Kansas counties and 12 western Missouri counties. The area was designated as the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area in 2006.

Billings said Lawrence is well-positioned to see increased tourism from those efforts. The heritage area has its headquarters and a permanent display in the Carnegie Library building in downtown Lawrence. Billings also predicted that the efforts would result in a stronger Watkins Community Museum of History and growing interest in other sites such as the Black Jack Battlefield near Baldwin City.

“There is a lot of tourism potential in the future,” Billings said. “It is not going to happen overnight. But we’re already getting some good national attention.

“The key will be that we’ll have to remain creative and really market ourselves. In this business, it definitely is out of sight, out of mind.”

Billings said the Destination Management Board plans to begin interviewing for the president and CEO position in late January, and hopes to have the position filled by mid-February.

Billings said she plans to remain in the Lawrence community after retirement.