In an interview with Leisure Group Travel Magazine, Peggy Bitzer reflects on her nearly 30 years at the helm of Circle Wisconsin, an organization that markets Wisconsin as a tourism destination.
This spring, after nearly 30 years at the helm of Circle Wisconsin, Peggy Bitzer has decided to turn in her passport. Leisure Group Travel publisher Jeff Gayduk sat down with Peggy to reflect on her accomplishments and perspective of the group travel market.
Leisure Group Travel: How did you get in the travel business?
Peggy Bitzer: I was going to back to school to be a nurse and at that time, the local hospital laid off something like 150 nurses. I had friends that were nurses and they advised not to pursue the field so I went to the local technical college and studied marketing and tourism.
One day I was at the mall and there was this newspaper called Inside Eau Claire which was produced by the local CVB. I picked it up and thought, “This is interesting.” I went to the library, researched the CVB and told myself, “This is where I’m going to work.’
As it would happen I was put on the advisory board at the college and met the CVB director. I positioned myself for an internship and after the internship was over she created a position for me in tourism sales.
I was suddenly in charge of advertising, publications and going to group travel trade shows. And I had never done any of this.
LGT: How did Circle Wisconsin come up?
PB: There were a couple of people from Wisconsin that went to Spring NTA and met with Circle Michigan. And the time they felt there was a void in the market so they decided to model and organization after Circle Michigan. I was totally against the idea and remember saying in a meeting one day, “Someone is just looking for a job for themselves.” I was aloof to all the meetings. Then one day they called and offered me the position! I said, “Okay, I like a challenge, but under one condition, I need to keep my position at the bureau.’ My thinking was that if this doesn’t work I don’t want to give up the bureau.
LGT: At one point did your mind change that you were really on to something at Circle Wisconsin?
PB: After six months of doing both I realized that there was just so much potential here that I decided it’s time that the position become full-time, whether that person is me or someone else.
LGT: Why do you think more states don’t have organizations like Circle Wisconsin?
PB: I think there are so many entities that don’t recognize the possibilities. In this industry you have so many people changing positions and shifting focus, they lose sight of it. It takes a lot of work and you have to be devoted to it. And I think that a lot of organizations get discouraged. But, it’s interesting to find those who lose sight then come back.
LGT: From the member standpoint, how have your numbers changed? Do you still have original members from 1985?
PB: We do have several charter members, but you always have attrition. I think people drop out because 1) they haven’t followed up with their sales leads and 2) they change their direction. Maybe one day it’s corporate, another it’s sports. There are always new opportunities but groups are constant. To be successful, you have to stay visible in your foundation and grow your other markets.
When we started, our state department of tourism wasn’t focusing on groups other than printing a tour planner. We were successful because we were filling a void, that and committed to making it grow. That’s good business sense.
LGT: On the topic of longevity, after 30 years does it get stale? How do you keep things fresh?
PB: I have never felt that way. It has always been inspiring for me. I’m not quite sure where I get my inspiration from but there’s always that feeling we can do more. There’s many things that if I had the dollars to do more we would. That was our only limitation.
LGT: How many trade shows do you estimate you’ve been to?
PB: At my 25th anniversary we calculated all the trips and trade shows and figured I had been on the road for 12 years. That’s why my husband can say we’re happily married. He’s married and I’m happy! Along with working our database continuously, I believe we were successful because we were visible, out in the trenches finding customers.
LGT: Any travel memories in particular that stick out?
PB: One year I had a particularly heavy travel schedule. I was on the East Coast, then travelled to the West Coast, came home and packed for a two week trade mission to Germany and the UK with our governor. When I came home from the last trip I was sitting at home petting my cat and I asked my husband, ‘Honey, what’s our cat’s name?’ I couldn’t remember it!
LGT: When you look back at your time at Circle Wisconsin, what are you most proud of?
PB: I think building on the foundation, and then keeping the foundation. It makes me proud to make events happen for our people – keeping Wisconsin visible in the eyes of the buyer. And it went by so quickly. The industry gives you that energy. When you are going to all the conventions you’re all charged when you come back because of all the opportunities.
LGT: Why is now the time to leave?
PB: My husband and I decided that now is the time for us to go out and play. It’s our time now.
LGT: What are you going to miss most?
PB: It’s going to be the people. All the friendships from across Wisconsin and across the country; seeing each other, sharing stories, enjoying each other’s company. I’m going to have to find something because I know in my mind there will be that void. And I’m not sure what that will be because I don’t want to fade off into the sunset. I want to be that social butterfly.
LGT: Does the Midwest Marketplace become your legacy?
PB: I think that it’s a great opportunity for tour operators to be able to look at a region and be able to comprehend everything they can do. Not only on one tour but to continue to come back to that area and expanding their tours. I am hoping that everyone will see the benefit of that.
LGT: In your opinion is there a bright future for group travel?
PB: In my opinion it’s as strong as you make it. If you make it weak in your marketing, it’s going to be weak. But if you are committed to it, there is so much opportunity you just have to keep knocking at the door and finding new ways to reach groups. Take for instance social media – it’s there – but I’m still finding that being visible, that direct one-on-one contact is best for business. And people cannot forget that.
LGT: Any advice for the next executive director of Circle Wisconsin?
PB: Stay true to your mission and your members. Understand your purpose and don’t lose sight of it.