WBR CVB Director Sharon Stam full of ideas to promote parish and region
Crisis averted,” read a text on Sharon Stam’s phone.
Stam, the executive director of the West Baton Rouge Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, breathed a sigh of relief after
receiving the text message from Jerome Trahan, senior officer, field marketing for Amtrak.
Stam was with a group in Atlanta when she received the text, which was regarding travel arrangements for about 14 people to Washington D.C., as well as from D.C. to Slidell, La.
Stam, along with 15 others from the southeastern region of Louisiana toured several states, holding special events in Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta, Ga.; and Washington D.C., in an effort to promote southeast Louisiana tourism.
After a miscommunication between Stam and Trahan, several Amtrak train tickets had been canceled. The text Stam received was confirmation that her ability to solve crises at any moment remained intact.
But it’s become commonplace for Stam to face crises; she’s learned to calculate and overcome missteps and problems of all kinds. She is a boding force that can stand in the face of adversity and, simply stated, get things done.
Stam came to West Baton Rouge Parish several years ago after leaving Washington Parish in pursuit of a job as WBR Chamber of Commerce Director. She didn’t get the job – but she was offered a different position due to her outgoing personality and positive attitude.
She was named the executive director of WBR tourism and began on March 8, 1999.
Originally from Idaho, Stam married a military man from Louisiana when she was 17. The couple moved to Louisiana sometime during the 25-year marriage, and after a divorce, Stam decided to stay in the state.
After careers as a teacher, a teacher’s union representative and the owner of a bed and breakfast, Stam fell into the job as tourism director in WBR – but it’s the people of the parish, and surrounding parishes, that have fallen for Stam, who is as full of ideas as she is charm.
During Stam’s 14-year tenure at what is now the West Baton Rouge Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, she has conceived several festivals, including the Kite Fest Louisiane (which has been named one of the state’s top festivals) and the Oldies but Good Fest, and other major events in the parish, like the Reflections of the Season Christmas lights exhibit.
One of Stam’s most recent brainchildren is a 10-parish group partnership, “Southeast Louisiana Gumbo,” that holds events throughout the state and country to promote area tourism.
“It all started out of economic reasons. We are the smallest parish in the state. And we’re not a true, what you would call, ‘destination,’” said Stam, adding that bringing in other parishes to form a large group was beneficial because though West Baton Rouge has several places to offer tourists, the entirety of the Southeastern region of Louisiana is a much bigger draw to tourists. “That’s just what tourism is – taking advantage of what’s around you.”
Stam said that after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region, tourism in the area was understandably struggling.
“We had FEMA people, but we just didn’t have the tourism,” she recalled.
The state of Louisiana, after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was given a pavilion at Disney’s Epcot for six weeks during a food and wine festival. Disney donated the pavilion to Louisiana in an attempt to help promote the state. Stam, along with other directors and employees from tourism bureaus throughout the state’s parishes worked together, giving her the idea that the Southeast region should form a conglomerate.
“We got to talking about it, and said ‘let’s form this group.’ We came up with the name and it just kind of started from there,” Stam said. “We applied to the state for a grant telling them we are a consortium, we’re going to do marketing for a group, and they gave us a grant.”
The crisis that the state’s southeast region tourism faced due to the hurricane was tremendous, even years afterward, but Stam and the Gumbo group helped potential tourists understand that the state was on an upswing.
But it was another disaster that allowed the group to be more vocal.
After the BP Oil Spill and clean-up, the British Petroleum company awarded the Gumbo group with a grant worth $400,000 to help promote Louisiana seafood.
“The BP Grant was really the catalyst to really getting our name out there. And it has been phenomenal for us,” Stam said. “The seafood industry got millions of dollars from BP because of the seafood industry and how it was damaged. They needed people to get out and tell the story that the seafood is fine, that it was clean, that it was fresh, that it’s been examined, it’s clean for consumption, the whole thing.”
According to Stam, the money from the BP grant helped the Gumbo group attend events across the country to promote tourism in southeast Louisiana.
During an event about three years ago, Stam pitched an idea to Amtrak train officials. The idea: a partnership between Gumbo and Amtrak to host several events in cities where the train runs, promoting Louisiana tourism and Amtrak transportation.
“A lot of the shows we go to, Amtrak is there,” Stam said. “So it’s a natural fit.”
Jerome Trahan agreed.
“Gumbo is a mix of a whole lot of good things – and that’s why they call themselves Southeast Louisiana Gumbo, because they’re a mix of different parishes, rural, city… the heart of Louisiana right there,” Trahan said. “I knew it was a unique idea and wanted to be a part of it.”
Trahan said that he was excited to know that a group of professionals were able to form such a strong partnership.
“They were able to come together and build a coalition to sell one message – which is the region,” he said.
Gumbo and Amtrak began their partnership in 2012, as members of the 10-parish area that is Southeast Louisiana Gumbo traveled by Amtrak train from Louisiana to Chicago, Ill., making several stops along the way.
This year, on Saturday, July 27, several members of Southeast Louisiana Gumbo arrived back in Slidell, La., after a week-long journey by train to Washington D.C. and back. They made stops in Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga.
Their message: New Orleans isn’t the only travel destination in Louisiana.
“I love New Orleans. Let them go to New Orleans, but let them come on out and visit some of the other areas,” Stam explained. “There’s a whole other story outside the city.”
During the group’s most recent trip, Bruce Mitchell of History Channel’s “Swamp People” was among those helping to promote the state.
“I love talking to people and telling them about Louisiana,” said Bruce, who is a resident of Tangipahoa Parish. “We’ve been in the tour business for years on the gator farm. I just like talking to people.”
Mitchell said that he and his wife, Janet, were invited on the trip by Betty Stewart, director of Tangipahoa Tourism and personal friend of 40-plus years.
Along with promoting the 10-parish region, Stam also helps other parish tourism offices as much as possible.
“I needed someone to mentor me, because I didn’t have a clue to what I was doing,” Stam said, remembering how she felt when she first started her job 14 years ago. “I go to them and try to help them out, and I think that’s an advantage too, to the rural parishes, to have somebody mentor them.”
Stam, who is 65-years-old, said that she knows there will come a point in her career where retirement will be a strong option, but said that she loves the job she is doing and couldn’t imagine life without it.
“You know what I think is more important than anything?” she asked while standing in an Atlanta-based Cajun restaurant as part of the latest Gumbo trip. “You have to love what you do.
“I’ve seen a couple of Bureau directors who are just getting a paycheck, that all it means to them. But I love it. I thrive on it. And I’m always looking for something different. You’ve got to keep finding something more creative.”
And that’s exactly what Stam will continue to do – use her creativity to thrive in the tourism business, promoting southeast Louisiana and West Baton Rouge, helping others and averting crises.