Northwest Nebraska Tourism Director 
Thursday, November 1, 2017

  1. Pumpkin Patches aren’t just for kids.

No, this is not Disney World. This is Vala’s Pumpkin Patch!

When the 2018 Nebraska Tourism Conference was announced in La Vista, I was ecstatic! Certainly not for the 8 hour trip there, but for the opportunity to re-visit the one-of-a-kind Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. I lived in Bellevue for a short part of my childhood, and my mom had a part-time seasonal job at Vala’s for several years. Last month, I was able to rekindle some of those memories as part of this conference. Let me tell you, this place has GROWN – literally. This is the epitome of a successful agri-tourism business that has the ambiance of an amusement park.  Today, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch has grown into a 400-acre operation with nearly 55 acres of pumpkins planted every year and over 800 employees.

Among all the harvest festivities, I enjoyed the Apple Slingshot and Blasters the most. It’s exactly what it sounds like… shooting apples out of a cannon-blaster. FUN. What a wonderful thing it is to travel the state for these conferences and see “crazy” ideas flourish into such a successful tourism businesses.

See, even THE John Ricks isn’t too cool to make new friends. John is the new Nebraska Tourism Director.

2. Neighbors are your friends, not foes.

Since day one, my neighbors and fellow tourism gurus have been nothing but nurturing and helpful. To be honest, I did not expect that type of reaction as I thought were are all “competing” for the same tourists. But the reality is that there are no county or regional lines in the eyes of tourists, so sharing information and expanding the “to-do” list helps everyone. This conference once again confirmed that idea.  One session with the Nebraska Festivals and Events, Inc. was filled with suggestions, solutions and new ideas for events across the state.

One-on-one time with other industry professionals was no different. We shared guideline and procedure documents, fundraising tips and formed more partnerships. Why re-create the wheel? Never underestimate the power of Nebraska hospitality. Post-conference, I created a Tourism Industry Professionals Facebook group to continue sharing ideas day in and day out. Click here to join.


  1. Where’s the bathroom? Why tourism markers are important.

I’m sure we can all related to that time during a road trip when driving through an unfamiliar place, but you really have to go. Then, out of the blue, you see a marker for a rest area or gas station. More than likely, you stop right then and there. While you’re there you fill up with gas and buy a snack or even a meal. It’s certainly not rocket science, but those markers directly translate into tourist spending, which benefits the economy.

This concept not only holds true for bathroom or gas station markers, but also for wayfinding signs in the community. Clear signage helps visitors feel welcome which hopefully results in repeat visitors. Matt Neemann with the Nebraska Department of Transportation shared this some insight at the conference on the process of providing wayfinding signs in communities. This is certainly something Dawes County can improve on and I look forward to developing a program for Crawford and Chadron in the coming year.  


  1. Downtown spaces aren’t only for big city places.

In April of this year, the City of Chadron officially began its journey to develop a downtown gathering space by purchasing the lot on the corner of 2nd and Main. I believe this is a progressive step to vitalizing downtown Chadron.

Dan Senftner, President of CEO of Destination Rapid City spoke at several conference sessions about his first-hand experience with the central gathering space in Rapid City. The visitor statistics and growth in downtown Rapid City show how the gathering space is an economic catalyst for downtown communities. Tourist and regional visitors see out authentic experiences and are increasingly looking for “where the locals are.” Incorporating this downtown gathering space into our community will foster community pride, increase tourist spending and capitalize on downtown revitalization projects. Let’s keep this rolling, Chadron! 


  1. Nebraska wine valley.

After several days of inspiring sessions, cultivating new ideas and industry updates, we celebrated with a reception and awards banquet. This year, we spent some quality time networking over a glass of wine and beer during the Celebrate Nebraska Reception. The Nebraska Wine and Grape Growers Association and Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild sponsored the event and there was a wide variety of wineries and breweries from across the state. Who says Nebraska is nothing but corn fields? My personal favorite was the Marquett from Niobrara Valley Winery. Currently, northwest Nebraska does not have any wineries or breweries in its two counties. This would be a great addition to tourism in our area. If you have a contact who might be interested in starting one, let’s chat!

Lastly, I’d like to say a big congratulations to my dear friends Mitch and Patty Glidden, who were recipients of the Henry Fonda award at the Awards Banquet. They are the owners of the well-known Sandhills Motel & Glidden Canoe Rental in Mullen. If you haven’t experienced tanking yet, I highly recommend blocking out a weekend next summer to pay them a visit. Clearly, many can attest to their unparalleled western hospitality. 


The Nebraska Toursim Conference is an excellent place to grow as a professional, network and build Nebraska Tourism Commission’s tourism efforts as a whole. I invite anyone in the tourism industry to save the date for October 16-18, 2018 in Nebraska City. The Western Nebraska Tourism Coalition offers scholarships and carpool options are available, too!

Check out this awesome recap video of the Nebraska Tourism Conference by Optix Digital Media:

Cheers to the 2017 Nebraska Tourism Conference and many more to come!