VISIT WILMINGTON: Sarah Willoughby, Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau
She might be one of Wilmington’s great advocates today, but Sarah Willoughby’s voice holds more than a hint of a southern accent, and she has a very good gumbo recipe that she’ll share if you’re nice. Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi (“If you're watching HGTV, that’s where ‘Home Town is filmed”), Sarah graduated Ole Miss before finding herself in Birmingham, Alabama, working as an insurance adjuster and … not happy. (“I claim that's where all my gray hairs come from. And I was saving my money, so I was only eating grits.”) But love bloomed within the walls of that insurance agency, and eventually, she followed her future husband back to his Delaware home …
“We landed in Philadelphia. And then we were in Delaware. And then we were in Maryland. Just driving around, looking at houses. How did we just go through three states like that? Mississippi's not super big, but you don't do that in 45 minutes.”
About 25 years later, and now executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sarah is responsible for promoting Wilmington to the world from her offices just off Market.
So what most surprises locals about the local tourism industry?
“To be honest? That it exists.”
“At at the CVB, we see our market goes pretty much from Connecticut to Virginia, but more than that if you're specifically into gardening or if you're into museums. When we sell the Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport – the password that it gets you into 12 attractions – we will sell that to people from 18 different states and some other countries too.”
“I just had a travel writer in from New York City for the “Costuming the Crown” exhibition at Winterthur. She had never been to Delaware, never been to Winterthur before, and she wants to come back and do Nemours and Historic New Castle. She just fell in love with what she saw in a glimpse. And I think once that story is told ... I think there is that kind of peaceful kind of feel that people do get here.”
“Also, tourism saves every Delawarean money in taxes. The tourism office is entirely funded by the lodging tax. If people come and stay in our hotels, whether it's business or leisure, there is an 8% statewide tax. And 5% goes back to the general fund, which helps every Delawarean out.”
Do you think the area is underappreciated by us locals?
“Maybe. My husband, for example, had not been back to Hagley since he went on a school trip. And now we go to Hagley regularly for different events or to see an exhibition. So I do think there may be some of that, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that, we did it in school.’”
We know you’re very familiar with Winterthur, which will bring hundreds of thousands of people to Wilmington this year for the “Costuming the Crown” exhibition. How did you get your start there?
“When I moved here, my husband and I were building a house and I soon found that I couldn't go to a dinner party without talking about electrical outlets or what was on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ I just had no stimulation. So the woman who was renting us an apartment said I ought to go volunteer. I was thinking about making money, not volunteering, but okay. I said, where should I go? She said, you know, there's a lot of cultural attractions here. So I sent my resumes to all of them and Winterthur called.”
“That's how I got hired. It was a part-time position and then it got funded by their Friends of Winterthur – ‘temporary full-time’ is what they called me, and I was there for ten years. I did a lot of marketing, did a lot of traveling, sales calls, conventions. People had never heard of Winterthur, much less could pronounce Winterthur. I came up with a fun "Win A Tour" giveaway for that.”
Do you think the changes on Market have affected tourism?
“Market’s restaurants are getting attention from travel press. You see the different vibe of Market that makes it feel like, ‘Oh, I want to be there.’ There's one thing I can't announce yet, but it's coming. But definitely, you know, you hear it. It's in a buzz out there and the writers that we've had in have been thoroughly impressed. And in some cases, they just sort of found it on their own.”
“I started here in 2004, 15 years ago. I remember very early on people kept coming into the visitor center asking, ‘Is there a Starbucks around here?’ I remember people saying “Mmm, no, Starbucks, not going to happen.’ And what, we have three now? And then Dunkin. And retail wanting to come in. So I think it's huge.”