By Conrad Dudderar
In her first year leading Travel Oklahoma, Shelley Zumwalt learned some valuable lessons while traveling across – and promoting – the state’s third largest industry.
Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism & Recreation Department, recently shared her five “rules” with a group of Yukon business and community leaders.
Zumwalt was the featured speaker for Yukon Chamber of Commerce’s monthly membership luncheon Oct. 12 at Trinity Baptist Church-Yukon, 620 N Cemetery Road.
Much of her talk centered around Oklahoma’s 30 state parks – popular destinations for vacationing Oklahomans and out-of-state visitors.
“The hospitality industry, specifically, has not recovered from the pandemic,” Zumwalt said. “And every time you choose Oklahoma, you’re contributing to the growth of our state’s third largest industry – contributing over $10.1 billion to our state economy from the last year that we have data.”
The Travel OK chief told Yukon Chamber luncheon attendees about:
Rule #1 – There is never just one deer, especially at night.
Rule #2 – Being the state director of “fun” is an awesome and amazing job.
Rule #3 – She is now and forever an advocate of Oklahoma’s state parks. All state parks are her favorite – until something breaks.
Rule #4 – The state tourism industry needs and appreciates Oklahomans who choose to be a tourist in their own state.
Rule #5 – She’s excited to continue being the “most energetic and passionate” advocate for Oklahoma and her people
Zumwalt has been Oklahoma’s tourism and recreation director since October 2022, previously spending 2-1/2 years as executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
She’s fallen in love with Oklahoma again since taking the reins at Travel Oklahoma.
“It’s really hard to live in our state and not have a state park that’s within two hours of where you live,” Zumwalt pointed out.
“If you’re one of those people sitting back and saying, ‘We never have been to a state park’ – go, you’ll have a great time.”
Many of Oklahoma’s state parks are economic drivers for local communities, often being the largest employer in some areas.
A “State Parks Passport” will debut next month to further encourage Oklahomans to visit parks with their families and friends.
Zumwalt was asked to list her top places to travel this fall. She talked about the Talimena Scenic Byway in Talihina, Beavers Bend Resort Park in Broken Bow, Lake Wister State Park in LeFlore County, McGee Creek State Park in Atoka, and Natural Falls State Park in the Ozarks.
MAKING AN INVESTMENT
Zumwalt’s agency is applying to the Oklahoma Legacy Fund for a $350 million, eight-year bond to make critical infrastructure repairs and other improvements to its state park assets.
“If you are wondering why we should spend this money on these parks, it’s because we are at the point where we say, ‘Either we invest in them and we fix them, or we decide we don’t want them anymore’,” she explained.
“I know that we want to be very fiscally responsible with our dollars, and I support that too. And if there’s any way to reduce that amount of money or make sure that we’re being more transparent hold me accountable.”
The state tourism and rec director is pushing for the state Legislature to raise the $5.7 million cap on a Promotional Fund for Oklahoma tourism. It was capped in 2015 when the state faced a revenue shortage.
Oklahoma is “lagging behind” other states’ tourism promotion budgets as expenses have increased tremendously, Zumwalt noted.
Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation also is asking lawmakers will remove the cap on a Maintenance Fund for the state parks. Oklahoma has more than $1 billion in assets, but only $10 million (less than 1%) to maintain them.
Zumwalt pointed out that Oklahoma has the most miles or Route 66 than any state. A record number of international travelers have visited the state to see the Mother Road.
“If we show people what Oklahoma is, and we really capitalize on the momentum that we have, this could be Oklahoma’s time,” she pointed out. “Colorado had their time. Texas already and is still having their time. Arkansas is having a great time – they passed a use tax that goes to their state parks.”
Those are examples of other states investing in tourism and hospitality – which Zumwalt reiterated is Oklahoma’s third largest industry.
PROUD TO SERVE
As a public servant, Zumwalt told the Yukon Chamber crowd that she loves her job.
“I love getting to talk about our state and I love getting to meet people all over our state,” she said. “But most of all, I love the possibility of what our state can be.”
This is her 12th year working in government, having started as a budget analyst at Oklahoma’s Office of State Finance.
Zumwalt later served as public affairs director for Gov. Mary Fallin, chief of communications for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and in multiple roles at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
Zumwalt encouraged Yukon’s community and business leaders to contact her if they needed help with anything – whether it’s planning a vacation or if they have a question about how money is spent at Oklahoma’s state parks. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
The Yukon Chamber’s October luncheon was catered by Green Chile Kitchen.