October is a unique month in the Pensacola Bay Area; it’s still warm enough to hit the beach yet the locals find themselves preparing gumbo and heading to football games. It’s also unique in a way that it marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Visit Pensacola. While to you that may not mean a lot, to us it begins the wrapping up of daunting expense reports, planning for the upcoming snowbirds and sometimes the exchanging of board members. Additionally, October marks the sixth month that I have been on board with the organization. This month has had me reflecting on my time here; what I’ve accomplished, where our company is going and what all of this means in the big picture of things. When people ask me what I do for a living, three little words keep recirculating: destination management organization.
When I explain to my family and friends what I do and about Visit Pensacola after I utter those three words I usually get one of those head turns my beagle Copper sports when he’s trying to understand something. Those three words are usually followed by something about tourism and some distant “oh okay, sure I get it,” but do they ever really get it?
You see Visit Pensacola is the centrical force, a body in a sense to the tourism industry in Escambia County. With branches outstretched to the hospitality industry and roots dug into decades of education and growth from business leaders, equal parts lean on one another to stabilize and thrive.
This month, as a welcome to the new year, we’re introducing you to a few of those people. This is Visit Local Pensacola: Hospitality and Tourism Through the Ages.
Robin Reshard: Creative Director, Robert Robino Productions
In a world full of hardship, Robin Reshard greets it with a slice of humility and a sense of humor. When I spoke with Reshard, it was after a handful of us had been working to restore the historic De’Alemberte House in the ever-changing Belmont-Devilliers District. On that day, our ankles were stained black with dirt and our brows furrowed with sweat, but I had never seen a livelier group. As creative director of Robert Robino Productions, she is charged with developing conversations that matter.
“I’m really passionate about ensuring that the African American experience, economic development and community development are part of the fabric of the whole story. The whole idea is to connect people, to link people through these stories.”
Reshard came into contact with Visit Pensacola through her work in Belmont-Devilliers. Located on the western fringe of Downtown Pensacola, the historically black neighborhood is known to the locals as “The Blocks.” It came to prominence during the early 20th century, when segregation and mounting racial tension pushed the city’s black residents out of the city center. The neighborhood, clustered around the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets, became a thriving commercial hub. It was also a prominent stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a network of mostly black-owned entertainment venues that sprung to life during segregation and nurtured the careers of some of the biggest names in American music.
The neighborhood began to lose business after desegregation. As the money and music flowed out of The Blocks, crime and blight began to move in. Today, that trend has reversed, and a new generation of business owners, investors and residents are working hard to reclaim their community’s rich history.
“People want the local experience. It’s cool to go to a place where things are familiar, but that’s not why we go somewhere. People want a local, unique and diverse Pensacola experience. I think that’s what Belmont-Devilliers offers to the City of Pensacola and Escambia County,” Reshard explained.“ It offers an amazing piece of history with an African American presence added to it. I’m excited that in 100 years people will know about Belmont-Devilliers because of the work that we’re doing.”
Photo By Guy Stevens
Through Reshard’s industry projects and dedicated storytelling, she has been at the center of helping people find and develop their own stories.
“When you’re coming into the industry, whatever got you excited about it, continue to bring that in even if that challenges the sort of normal way of thinking,” Reshard explained. “Tell your story, don’t be afraid to tell your story. Don’t be afraid to be unique in that story because we don’t want cookie-cutter, same thing, plop this down here, I can do this. Bring in your uniqueness because that’s what makes Pensacola great.”
Jason Nicholson: Vice President, Hotel Operations, Innisfree Hotels
Grit is inherently unique to every single person which is why I find myself drawn to it like the Gulf to the shore. Grit is what causes people to be bold and daring. It taps into one’s deepest passions in the hopes of movement and discovery and doesn’t back down when the going gets tough.
This is how Jason Nicholson, Vice President of Hotel Operations for Innisfree Hotels, explained to me his climb from poverty, beginning at the age of 13 from the yard of a concrete plant.
During our interview, I was inspired by his excitement for the industry and empowered by his massive amount of grit - and the way he uses it to positively impact others.
With more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry, he seemed to have quite a few things figured out when I sat down to chat with him. As a former Marine and longtime hotelier, Nicholson brings an unwavering force of strength to the table that sets the foundation for the operations of Innisfree Hotels.
In an industry rooted in guest experience, Nicholson is focused on one thing: improving our collective quality of life. By investing in the source, Nicholson has solved the equation to creating fun, memorable experiences for anyone that comes into contact with the fast-growing management company.
“My job is fun, I get to influence the quality of life of the people I work with and serve and have lots of resources to do it,” Nicholson explained.
As a Gulf Coast resident for most of his life, Nicholson has been involved with tourism in Escambia County in one way or another for 18 years. Upon his initial encounter with Pensacola tourism development, he noticed that there was a lack of knowledge in the greater Pensacola community of what tourism does for the area.
Through his various roles, Nicholson constantly asks himself how he can help the community and improve the economy. And he isn’t afraid to step on any toes.
“I don’t have to repay any favors, so I can speak freely,” he says.
Over the years, he has made it his mission to establish a strong foundation and educate the community. Through the committees he has served, his voice has been a channel of influence. Now, as incoming Board Chair for Visit Pensacola, he plans to convey the same qualities upon which Innisfree was built.
At any given time, you can find him with a handy Innisfree Hotels 10 Commandment Card in his pocket. Derived from the work of all levels of Innisfree teammates and upheld by Innisfree’s Founders Julian and Kim MacQueen, the 10 commandments stand as a pillar for how all members of the team should work together and service guests.
Continually, Jason lives and teaches the principle that “hospitality is a way to change the world … one guest at a time.”
He explained to me that every person who comes into an Innisfree property will have an experience - but it’s up to the team what that experience will be. Over the next year, we’ll all get an inside look at just what it means to create those fun, memorable experiences, with Jason Nicholson at the helm of our board.
“My largest piece of advice would have to be don’t be afraid to say ‘yes,’ and be ready to work hard,” he shares. “You’re going to get frustrated at times, but it’ll all be worth it when you make a positive impact on someone’s life.”
Courtney Price: Visit Pensacola Tourism Ambassador
As a fourth-year Hospitality student at the University of West Florida, Courtney Price is just beginning her industry story. As a tourism ambassador for Visit Pensacola, she is charged with greeting and servicing travelers. In an industry based on guest experience, Price balances the hefty task of first impressions to visitors.
A lover of travel, she finds it easy to relate.
“I always try putting myself in their shoes, what would I want when I first get to a destination, what would I want to know or find out. Whenever I talk to the guests, I try to find out why they’re here and then try to answer them accordingly.”
In her time at the Visitor’s Information Center, she has worked directly with Jennifer Jackson-Keating, Director of Sales and Services, to develop and facilitate in-house events.
“When I took the idea of events to my team, Courtney really stepped up to the plate to help develop the groundwork. She has been innovative in the process and I know it is something that our travelers recognize. Her hard work and dedication showcase her passion for the industry and I am proud to have her on our team,” Jackson-Keating expressed.
Courtney dreams to one-day work in guest services for Disney. “I grew up going there as a child with my family. The people we met through guest services really made our experience magical. I hope to one day be able to create that same experience for people.”
As for now, Courtney is gaining valuable experience with the Visit Pensacola team, an experience that she credits as the foundation for her career. With mentors whose experience spans the past thirty years, she is sure to create her own unique story leading us into the future of the hospitality and tourism industry.