The Fixer: Julie Gilbert works to redefine Destination Door County

Most women wouldn’t answer a question about their weight, let alone to a reporter. Julie Gilbert didn’t blink.

“I’m 5’8”, 136 pounds,” she said. She paused. It was March of 2022 and she had only been in Door County for a few weeks. “Probably 138 now: I can’t find fat-free cheese,” she said, laughing.

Vital statistics aren’t typically reported for a profile, and whether those go into a story depends upon relevancy. Gilbert’s transparency – which I’m defining as her willingness to respond, on the record, to virtually any question I asked – became a relevant detail for a person whose job relied to a large degree on gaining the community’s trust. 

Gilbert became Destination Door County’s (DDC) new president/CEO in late 2021 following a national search, bringing with her some 30 years of experience in the tourism industry. 

In this age of overtourism, whether real or perceived, locals generally consider a person in Gilbert’s position as responsible for damaging their quality of life, not improving it. If Gilbert wanted to win hearts and minds and change that perception – and she did – it meant showing local residents how the visitor economy enhances their lives.

That didn’t just mean throwing DDC’s approximate $8 million-dollar budget (in 2022) at marketing to bring all comers, touting the outcomes as evidence of success, however meaningful that story may be – a $582.4-million industry in 2022 in Door County, supporting some 3,335 jobs, or roughly the entire populations of Liberty Grove and Sister Bay combined. People understand what it means to be a destination-marketing organization, after all; it meant showing them what it meant to be a destination-management organization.   

That’s why Gilbert moved for the job from one side of the Niagara Escarpment to the other, where she had been with Destination Niagara USA since 2014, at the time as its vice president of sales and marketing. She saw Door County as a place to put her platform of community-shared values into action – something she couldn’t do in Niagara Falls, a “bucket list” destination with rarely a repeat visitor. 

Julie Gilbert has strived to be present and available to the public and partners as President and CEO of Destination Door County. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

“I love marketing and I love sales and I’m good at it,” she said. “But I was at a point where I wanted to be a part of something bigger than marketing or sales. I wanted to help grow something that meant more, that impacted the community positively. So that’s really why I looked at Door County.”

She moved to Sevastopol in early 2022 with her husband, Robert (they have two sons, one who just finished graduate school, the other a college senior), saying goodbye to amenities like Uber and Grubhub for good.

“I think the things we’re benefitting from are well worth giving up some of those other things,” she said, back in that first interview in 2022.

Such as?

“There’s wine and liquor in the grocery stores,” she said, laughing, “and the wine selection is incredible” (wine and liquor are only sold at wineries or liquor stores in New York state). “So that’s just opened up a whole new world for us. Where have you been all our lives, Wisconsin?”

And where has Gilbert been? What did she hope to achieve when she moved from Niagara County in upstate New York (population 211,653), to a sliver of Wisconsin land thumbing out into the waters of Lake Michigan (population 30,369)? 

Then and Now

It’s easy to see why Gilbert would have stood out among the 70 candidates who responded to a national search for DDC’s new president/CEO. When she isn’t smiling, laughing, making jokes, listening intently, writing in her notebook, doling out compliments and being generally charming in the manner of those with high social intelligence, she’s also offering sharp insights and citing statistics, marketing strategies and destination management theories. 

Still: it wasn’t enough to interview her when she was freshly arrived in March 2022. I asked her to sit down again about 16 months later in July 2023. By then, she would have met stakeholders across Door County and navigated the various personalities and perspectives that make the peninsula both endearing and frustrating. She would have worked with the Door County Tourism Zone Commission that collects the 8% lodging tax that funds the budget of DDC. She would have learned about the staff she inherited, proposed new marketing strategies, developed new programs and initiatives and led a master-planning process.

Surely, she would be less forthcoming or candid in that friendly, genuine way she has. Surely, after 16 months, this apple would have lost some of its shine.

I’m happy to report – that’s not the case.

“I’m continuing to be excited and passionate about showing Door County to as many people as I can because I think it’s such an incredibly special place,” she said in that second interview. “I love the people here. I have felt a part of the community from day one. People have gone out of their way.”  

During that first interview in 2022, as March’s finest bleakness darkened the Door, Gilbert had yet to go through a season, had yet to experience the peninsula’s art, culture, lake, beaches, theater. Her boxes were unpacked. She couldn’t demonstrate how her standing office desk worked because she hadn’t purchased it yet. She couldn’t give advice about buying a good pump if you purchase an ergonomic ball office chair like hers, because that, too, wasn’t there at the time. Even her winter boots had only been tested once.

“I went hiking at the Ridges,” she said in March 2022. “It was so cold, but it was so incredibly beautiful.” 

By July 2023, she had been blown away by Door County’s performing arts and galleries and restaurants. Even if she still hadn’t visited every single little cool place in Door County (“and that bothers me,” she said); even if she were still constantly learning (“I don’t know how anyone could feel like they know it all,” she said), she’d begun to glean Door County’s essence. 

“A lot of destinations have outdoor recreation, but what sets us apart is our art, our culture, our culinary history,” she said. “We are different; we are unique. People want to know that.”

Neither had Gilbert’s first impressions of Door County deceived her. The cleanliness of the county had been a signal to her of pride of place, and she’s learned Door County residents and visitors have a passion and dedication for community that she hasn’t witnessed at other destinations across the U.S. where she has worked, and in Europe (Frankfurt, Germany, and Paris, France) where she lived for a time due to her husband’s job as a hotel executive.

She had also noted the high percentage of female leaders in Door County, and that has meant she has peers. And that novelty when she first arrived of seeing motorists wave to each other and passersby? She’s learned the welcoming culture isn’t just skin deep. 

“Buffalo [NY, where they arrived from] is very open and warm, but they are not people who invite you into their home,” Gilbert said. “But here, people are, ‘Hey, come and have dinner’ or ‘Let’s meet for dinner.’ It’s more social.

“Door County is just so different, perspective-wise, and there’s just so much more to it,” she continued. “I just kept falling more in love with the place.”

Walking the Talk

Julie Gilbert. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

The travel and tourism industry has changed since Gilbert first started her career some 30 years ago as the executive director for a Convention and Visitors Bureau in West Virginia (she would eventually become director of sales and marketing for the State of West Virginia, before opening her own agency, and then working as Director of Sales and Marketing for National Park Reservations). 

In the past, phrases like  “destination management” and “sustainable tourism” didn’t exist. The primary objective was to put “heads in beds.” That goal began to change before COVID-19, but the pandemic highlighted the downside of tourism as people fled en masse from cities to less-populated areas. Suddenly, places like Door County were a whole lot busier in a noticeable way. “Overtourism” crept into everyday language, and overrun communities with stressed infrastructure and trampled natural resources considered it an issue that needed to be solved.

Gilbert said the destination-marketing industry was already changing prior to the pandemic in response to places across the country already overrun with visitors in ways that created challenges for local populations. That was evident in Door County, too. When the search to fill DDC’s top spot commenced in 2021, Todd Trimberger, at that time the DDC’s board chair, said the board and local search committee “are not just looking for someone who can step into the role and continue our current, successful marketing efforts, but for someone who can lead us into our next generation as a destination-management organization and marketing organization.”  

“Conversations nationally began to draw awareness to balance,” Gilbert said. “We learned there was a disconnect between the tourism place and the place that people called home. That’s where you get lack of trust, and communication is key to that. If there are things you don’t know, and nobody is answering those questions, there’s a lack of trust.”

A key to repairing the disconnect is a concept called “community-shared values,” Gilbert said – values shared by every member of the community, its non-negotiable core principles or standards that communities want to maintain. 

“We need to understand what the priorities are for each of our communities and how we can help and support those communities to achieve those priorities,” Gilbert said. “It’s not just talk. That’s why it’s up to us to continue the walk.”

She cited two programs in particular that walk the DDC’s talk these days: the State Park Grant Initiative and the Community Investment Fund grant program. With the former, the DDC gives $50,000 to each of Door County’s five state parks, invites the park to identify a larger project and raise another $50,000 from donors, and then matches that additional $50,000 raised – for a total $150,000 for each of the five parks. 

The second program reinvests in the communities and nonprofits that host the visitors by granting dollars four times annually to local projects that benefit both residents and tourists. Launched in January of this year, the program has already funded eight projects totaling $575,251.

“That’s what a community-shared values organization can do,” Gilbert said. “We’re in a unique position of being able to bring people to the table and reinvest back into the community. We can’t take care of everything, but we sure as heck can do some things.”

Both programs are opening doors for DDC by creating opportunities for meaningful dialogue with municipalities, nonprofit organizations and state parks. Perhaps that dialogue leads to trust that they share the same values and are working toward common goals. Perhaps they learn they have each other’s backs.

“We weren’t having those conversations before,” Gilbert said. “So it’s important.”

Listening is an Action

Gilbert said DDC has made errors in the past, and primary among those were relationship-building. 

“We weren’t listening to our communities,” Gilbert said. “I think we’ve talked at people; I don’t think we’ve listened and had conversations.”

Those conversations, even one person at a time (she described her approach as similar to building a grass-roots effort), allow her to absorb thoughts and suggestions and then build those out. Within reason.

“I’m a fixer,” she said. “I like to fix things. But I’m also a realist; sometimes, people don’t want you to fix things.”

She has learned who is and isn’t onboard with the DDC and its mission; she has learned that each of Door County’s 19 communities have a unique personality and perspective. 

“I didn’t really understand that [at first],” she said. “It’s so diverse, which makes it fun from a marketing perspective to be able to tell that story, and also good for a community’s perspective.”

For her, it creates the challenge of trying to be “everywhere all the time. Communication with municipalities is essential. So something that continues to be a challenge is to create and develop those relationships so if there are questions, they can call me.”

Is it working?

“Our work is not done,” she said. “There’s a long road ahead, but we’re getting there. It’s constant listening and learning for us, because that’s what community shared-values represents. We’re never going to be done with that.”

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