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Faces of Faith Travel: Julie Pennington

Julie Pennington has an outgoing personality and loves her home state of Arkansas. But her introduction to the tourism industry wasn’t exactly a strategically planned move — it was mostly an effort to get out of farmwork in her childhood home of West Fork.

“My dad told me in the summer of my junior year of high school that if I didn’t have a job by the end of the week, I’d have to work with him on the farm,” Pennington said. “So I went to Devil’s Den State Park and told them that I needed somewhere to go between 8 and 5 every day, and I didn’t even care if I got paid.”

That summer job was the beginning of a career-long love affair with the hospitality and tourism industry. Today, Pennington is the group tour manager for the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau, where she works to attract groups to spend some time exploring her destination in northwest Arkansas.

She’s come a long way from that first job at the state park, where she worked in the restaurant and then “got promoted” to checking guests in at the visitors center. After high school, she took a job at the Clarion Inn in Fayetteville, working her way up from the front desk to the sales director position over the course of nine years.

That hotel job led to two more, managing one property and then serving as a regional sales director for a family of four other properties. From there, she went to work for the Fayetteville Town Center, the city’s main meetings venue, which is run by the visitors bureau. That job led to her current role in tourism sales. Pennington took the post in 2006.


Personality and Creativity

Success in the tourism industry often requires a sparkling personality, and Pennington has that.

“I was just born with the passion,” she said. “I’ve always liked people. I was a high school mascot, and I was voted most talkative person in my class four years in a row. My mother always said that even as a child, I never met a stranger.”

The personality isn’t the only ingredient in Pennington’s recipe, though. She said that her work in selling Fayetteville requires a lot of creative thinking.

“I’m very creative and dedicated,” she said. “I haven’t had a new attraction open in Fayetteville since I started this job, but I’m constantly revamping and repackaging things for tour operators. I work really hard to create catchy itineraries, like our ‘Sitting on Your Rocker Eating Betty Crocker’ tour.”

That creativity and dedication have been recognized beyond just Fayetteville. In 2008, the South Central Motorcoach Association named Pennington “Rookie of the Year.” The Arkansas Hospitality Association presented her the “Manager of the Year” award in 2011.


Rookie Red and the A-Team

One of Pennington’s most creative ideas was Rookie Red, a large red puppet that she has made the official mascot of Fayetteville tourism.

“I found this puppet in a warehouse store and thought it would be great to take on tours,” she said. “I take him on the motorcoach. We usually dress alike. I find out if there’s a single woman on the coach, and Rookie Red romances the lady. It’s like a Muppet come to life.”

Rookie Red has become an icon in Fayetteville, starring in videos and tourism advertisements. Pennington said she owes the inspiration for the idea to Carolyn Joyce, her counterpart from the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of “the A-Team” of Arkansas tourism promoters. Joyce is known for donning the character of “Miss Laura,” a historic madam, to attract groups to her city.

“Miss Laura, good ole Carolyn, told me that I needed to come up with something catchy. She really mentored me on the group tour side. Recently, she told me that I was ready to go out on my own. I owe a lot to her and to the A-Team. We all work hard and sell each other well.”


Running, Farming and Fun

Pennington and the rest of the A-Team spend a lot of time on the road promoting Arkansas at events such as the American Bus Association Marketplace, the Travel South USA Showcase, the Going On Faith Conference and Boomers in Groups. When she’s at home, Pennington can be found organizing Fayetteville’s Trick or Treat on the Square event for 1,500 schoolchildren or playing practical jokes on her co-workers at the visitors bureau.

She loves cooking — “fried chicken, pork chops, cherry pies, all the bad stuff” — and has recently taken up running as an exercise hobby. She’s getting back to her roots on the farm as well.

“My mother recently passed away, so I’m taking over the family farm,” she said. “I’ve had to learn a lot about gardening. I’m going to do a community garden this year, so you can start praying for me on that.”

Whether it’s a home hobby or her tourism work, Pennington finds a way to enjoy every minute of it.

“I’ve never worked a day since I started at the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau,” she said. “I’m jolly holly, happy to be at work. I love my job because it changes every day.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.