35 years ago Lori Hill could already sense the incredible untapped potential of Oklahoma’s tourism industry. Now, tourism is the state’s third largest industry, thanks in large part to leaders like Hill herself. She has spent decades raising the profile of communities within the state and now works as the tourism director for the City of Broken Arrow, where she is responsible for broader tourism strategy. The decision to attend Northeastern State University was simple, “I knew I wanted to go to NSU as soon as I stepped on the campus. It’s beautiful! It’s so peaceful to be surrounded by the rivers and forests in Tahlequah. I just got that feeling right away that this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Hill decided to study tourism and event planning at NSU after taking an intro to event planning class. Her parents were surprised to learn about her chosen major and were hesitant about her job prospects. Hill notes tourism was not as well understood in the mid ‘80s, nor did Oklahoma have then all it offers today. However, she was steadfast that she did not need to leave Oklahoma to achieve her dream. “Every cab or uber a visitor rides in, every restaurant they go to, the hotel stays and equipment along the way - that’s all tourism. It’s not just browsing museums or whatever else is included in the traditional image people have of tourism.” After graduation, Hill spent some time as a corporate event planner for a major telecommunications company. The job afforded her the opportunity to travel nearly constantly to incredible places like seaside resorts and major theme parks. “The memories I’ve made while traveling are some of my most treasured. I love that working in tourism and travel, I get to be a part of making wonderful memories for others.” As she decided to start a family, Hill went seeking an opportunity to develop Oklahoma’s travel industry. Although she was offered several out-of-state jobs, her love of her home state and foresight for the state’s growing tourism industry compelled Hill to decline. Now, she has served the Broken Arrow community for the last 16 years, spearheading a wide array of events and travel experiences. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to take someone’s idea and turn it into a reality. In Broken Arrow we get to do a little of everything, family reunions, festivals, sports events. My team and I set up a major boxing match here, televised nationally, with just a few weeks’ notice. Every day is different and it’s a lot of fun to bring joy to my community.”
Hill grew up only an hour from the NSU campus and the university remains a big part of her life. Her mentor from the tourism program at NSU, Penny Dotson, and a new professor within the tourism department, Kim Thompson, often help Hill with board training curriculum and recruitment for job leads nearby. Hill first met her husband at NSU- the two would re-connect years after graduation. Hill remembers the campus and small, intimate classroom setting fondly.
“The small class size, the friendly community, being close to home – it was a wonderful college experience and genuinely prepared me to go out into the world and succeed. Now my son attends University of Central Oklahoma, and I’m really glad he gets to enjoy all those same perks I got at a regional university.”
The small class size, the friendly community, being close to home – it was a wonderful college experience and genuinely prepared me to go out into the world and succeed.
Of course, in recent months, travel and tourism has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 31 years Hill has seen the industry evolve and she believes it is in for big change once again. But it is forward thinkers like Hill who will meet the new demands head on. “The tourism industry is constantly changing and adapting to meet the needs and wants of travelers. People might not want to get on a cruise ship or plane right now, but they may try outdoor recreation or travel closer to home. Just like we’ve done in years past we’re going to find a new rhythm. We’ll probably end up doing things better by getting creative.”