First in a two-day series on leadership at the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Springfield’s longest-serving president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is retiring, closing out 35 years in the position on Dec. 31.
Tracy Kimberlin has seen a lot of changes in Springfield’s tourism industry over the years, both in terms of growth and decline.
He leaves as the city’s tourism has hit record highs and investment in new and upgraded amateur sports facilities indicates a promising future.
“2020, after being the worst year ever on record, 2021 was a record and this year will break 2021,” Kimberlin said.
But also, as Springfield’s ability to host large conventions remains in question and the hospitality industry faces staffing challenges, his successor won’t have an easy task.
A college job paved Kimberlin’s path into tourism
Kimberlin graduated from Missouri State University in 1975, and intended to attain his master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Those plans were derailed as he climbed the ladder at what was supposed to be a college job in the hotel industry.
“I would do that for a while and save up some money and then go back to grad school, but I was managing the hotel within a couple of years and then eventually became vice president, director of operations over a company that had nine properties in the Midwest,” Kimberlin said.
It wasn’t long after that he found himself involved on the board of directors of the young CVB, which formed in 1980. After serving two three-year terms, the position for executive director became open in 1987. Then-president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Bill Dauer coaxed Kimberlin into pursuing the job, and the rest is history.
Since then, he also has worked as a Missouri State University instructor in restaurant management.
With the growth of Springfield, came the growth of its tourism
When Kimberlin joined the CVB, the budget was about $400,000. Today, combined with the Springfield Sports Commission, it’s over $4.5 million annually. In its beginnings, the CVB had five employees, and Springfield had roughly 3,000 hotel rooms. Today, the staff numbers 18 and the city’s hotels can hold an aggregate 6,200 visitors.
Over the course of his tenure, the Springfield Cardinals were established, the John Q. Hammons Arena (now Great Southern Bank Arena) was built at MSU, the city hosted numerous national softball tournaments, and the leisure and hospitality labor force swelled to 50,000 strong.
Kimberlin partially attributed some of the city’s successes to Springfield’s neighbor and tourism hub to the south, Branson. He admitted to some understandable tension over the years between the two cities, but ultimately contends they benefit each other.
“Although there has been perceived competition in the leisure travel segment, I think it is perceived,” he said. “I think we complement each other and I think there’s a great deal of cross traffic between the two locations. I think we help each other in that respect.”
The biggest beef Springfield has with the city that dubs itself the “live music show capital of the world” is its superiority when it comes to holding conferences for businesses, according to Kimberlin.
However, they have both found ways to overcome the “perceived” competition and work together, evidenced through their founding of the Ozark Mountain Partnership, a tourism collaboration between the Springfield CVB, the Branson CVB and Herschend Family Entertainment.
“We do compete with Branson, but we’re friendly competitors,” he said. “And we should be.”
University Plaza, convention limitations to pose challenge for Kimberlin’s successor
Despite Springfield’s exponential growth and strengths when it comes to tourism, Kimberlin said the city has a glaring weakness: its inability to host large meetings and conventions. It has become even more pronounced with the deterioration of the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center, which sits right across the street from the CVB offices.
“That is one of my biggest disappointments, having been here for 35 years,” he said. “There has been very little money invested in that property in 20 years.”
While Springfield is home to a number of sizable convention centers, the University Plaza, supplemented by the nearby Expo Center, is, by far, able to host the largest audiences.
Alas, the building is aging and its mechanical systems are failing. Kimberlin told the Springfield Daily Citizen in an earlier story about University Plaza that the state of Springfield’s largest convention center has resulted in groups taking their business to other cities.
Atrium Hospitality, a Georgia-based hospitality company, assumed ownership and management of University Plaza in the years since founder John Q. Hammons died, and his hotel company went bankrupt. Kimberlin, along with city leaders, has urged them to invest in renovations for the aging hotel.
“I think there was a time when everyone looked to John Q to solve everybody’s problems and John Q built facilities that solved his problems, but not necessarily the entire city’s,” Kimberlin said. “It’s going to take a substantial investment by Atrium Hospitality to get that hotel back up to speed. I don’t know if they’re in a position to do that, but something’s got to happen.”
In a statement from Atrium Hospitality to the Daily Citizen, they commended Kimberlin’s career in the CVB. They also said that they have made some investments in renovations this year, and conversations around continued improvements are ongoing with the City of Springfield and the CVB.
“We appreciate the partnership that we’ve had with the Springfield CVB under Tracy’s leadership,” the statement reads. “We thank him for all of the work he has done to strengthen tourism in Springfield and wish him the best in his retirement. We look forward to working with the new leader of the Springfield CVB as we head into the new year.”
Public and private investment brings revived focus on sports tourism
While University Plaza poses a difficult challenge, the CVB’s 35-year veteran is encouraged by the sports sector of the city’s tourism industry. Springfield, once a sports tourism hub, is seeking to reclaim that status.
“Back in the beginning of my career, we had some of the best amateur sports facilities in the country,” Kimberlin said. “When it came to softball, we hosted about every national softball tournament that you can think of.”
Additionally, Springfield hosted a handful of US Youth Soccer Midwest championships on their many soccer fields.
“But as time went on, we didn’t reinvest in those facilities,” Kimberlin said. “Although we had a lot of facilities, they became old and tired. And now, finally, we’re reinvesting in those facilities.”
Kimberlin praised the $22 million renovation project that will transform the Cooper Park and Sports Complex, which is home to 14 soccer fields, five baseball fields, tennis courts, a walking trail and other amenities.
In addition, the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds is building a new facility to replace the small and aging Corwin Arena, and the opening of the Betty and Bobby Allison SportsTown expanded Springfield’s capacity to host events for a number of different sports.
In total, Kimberlin estimated about $75 million was being poured into sports tourism in the Springfield area.
However, sports venues aren’t the only element of Springfield’s tourism industry that attracts out-of-towners. Kimberlin praised the Great Southern Bank Arena and Juanita K. Hammons Hall for having the ability to attract events, including the upcoming Broadway show Hamilton.
“Arts and culture, I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves, and frankly I don’t think I gave it the credit that it deserves for a long time,” he said. “The more that we can have here in Springfield, the better.”
What’s next for Kimberlin?
For all intents and purposes, Kimberlin is retiring…sort of. He intends to continue working part time in a different capacity. He threw around the ideas of consulting and lobbying as ways he may spend his time.
Golfing, meanwhile, appeared to be a much more certain part of his future.
“All of the above may happen,” it just kind of depends,” he said. “There’s a lot going on right now that I certainly want to see through.”
On Dec. 8, the CVB announced Kimberlin’s successor, Mark Hecquet.
Hecquet, a Briton with experience in Ohio’s tourism industry, will assume the role of president on Jan. 17.