Ray Ezelle, vice president of sales and services at Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, has seen it all from all angles of the events industry. He spent nearly two decades as a hotelier before bringing that perspective to Connect (then Collinson Media & Events). As vice president of sales, he helped customize solutions for different market segments. Most recently, he was a third-party operator for a housing and site selection company. He now steps into Virginia’s Blue Ridge—a regional destination centered around Roanoke—after Alex Michaels left to lead Discover Lehigh Valley as their president and CEO. Ezelle discusses what the scenic region has to offer and what’s next.
What did you know about the area before taking the job?
I knew it was beautiful—the scenery is breathtaking. Back in my hotel days, I lived out west in the Rocky Mountains and I missed that. It’s a metro-mountain mix. There are a lot of great restaurants and shopping and everything has a view.
How do you want Virginia’s Blue Ridge to be viewed?
I want us to be to be thought of as the sports and meetings destination in this region. One exciting thing is the fact we have 21 institutions of higher learning within a 60-mile radius, including Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech is doing a lot of medical research, so Roanoke is becoming a hub of medical research. We want to take advantage of the demographics and all that’s happening in the area.
Where do you see meetings coming from?
With Virginia Tech medical school and its partnership with Carilion, it is becoming leaders in medical research. With Northern Virginia [being the location of the new Amazon headquarters], regional events should push down toward southwest Virginia. We do a lot with Virginia and North Carolina state associations, as well as the typical specialty markets—religious, some fraternal, a lot of social. Roanoke has a history around transportation. For years, it was known more as a railroad hub. There are a lot of organizations with ties to transportation. We are only four hours away from Washington, D.C., on Amtrak.
How will you manage a staff hired by your predecessor?
It’s very similar to what I did at Connect. We had established superstars at Connect. So, as opposed to me making a 180-degree shift, I’ll make small tweaks and try to get them involved to buy in to our strategy. I don't believe in change for change’s sake. I believe in streamlining processes and how we focus on moving the needle.
What’s your mission statement?
The way I look at it is simple. At Virginia’s Blue Ridge, we have almost 8,000 people dependent on tourism. I want us to be able to look in the mirror each night and say, “I did everything I could to make sure these 8,000 people are working—whether they are a server at a restaurant or a housekeeper. I take it personally.”