Dixon started with a degree in Fine Arts specializing in Graphic Design, and spent over fifteen years helping small businesses with marketing needs in Phoenix, Arizona and Starkville, Mississippi. When her husband Grady Dixon, PhD, landed a job at Fort Hays State University a few years ago, she sold her interest in her marketing agency to move cross country.
"That was one of the hardest things I have ever done," she says. "That business was my baby. I had to keep telling myself I could not run it long distance."
Initially, Dixon took a newly created job as Social Media Coordinator at Fort Hays State, making some simple changes and significantly increasing mobile traffic for the University. About two years ago, the CVB hired her as Executive Director.
Watching her at work in the Bureau, it is obvious that Dixon has found a strong match for her talents and vision. She has developed connections with key players in this vibrant community, helping them engage with each other for mutual advancement and making Hays more prominent on the tourism map of Kansas, one event at a time.
Dixon sings the praises of her staff: Brandon Cooley, the marketing manager and in-house video specialist; Janet Kuhn, Convention Sales Manager with 15 years in the hospitality industry, Annette Barber, part time receptionist and former school teacher; Bobbi Pfeifer, Administrative Assistant in the position for over ten years. “Bobbi really showed me the ropes as far as figuring out how our office and city administration is run!” The team also includes two FHSU student interns. Dixon says, "We're using our talents to help the city let people know Hays is a cool tourist destination!"
Good in Kansas
I met Dixon because I drove to Hays for one of my day trips, exploring small towns and rural Kansas from my home base in Wichita. After touring Historic Fort Hays, I asked Tammy Younger if she could recommend someone to interview for a series of blog posts I am beginning on "good people doing good stuff" in Kansas.
Younger instantly said, "Melissa Dixon!" and gave me directions to the CVB. Dixon graciously worked me into her schedule on short notice.
Dixon is vivacious and enthusiastic but also thoughtful and focused. I had said I hoped to talk about more of her personal outlook and journey, not just her current work, but with our limited time, we kept circling back to the work which defines much of her life now!
When she and her husband decided to move to Hays, they sold their home in Mississippi in one day and her business building in about a month. "I guess this is what we're supposed to be doing," she laughs. Their daughter Delia, 11, and son Brooks, 8, made the move pretty easily and enjoy Hays.
Her husband started as Chair of the Geosciences Department and now serves as Interim Dean of the College of Science, Technology and Mathematics at Fort Hays State. Specializing in atmospheric sciences, he was familiar with Kansas long before they moved here.
"He is a storm chaser," Dixon explains, but she does not worry about danger in the field. Dr. Dixon periodically takes a whole class of students on ten-day trips to observe weather patterns for academic credit, and safety is a top priority!
Dixon no longer finds much time for her original artistic focus of painting, but she likes to run and finds a creative outlet in cooking. "I love to create something from nothing" in the kitchen, she admits.
The CVB is funded by the Transient Guest Tax or hotel tax, and works closely with the Chamber of Commerce, housed in the same building. Dixon sees a big part of her mission as educating locals to sell Hays, which has an enviable number of free and low cost entertainment events year round. Dixon's greatest satisfaction comes when people stop CVB staff around town to say, "I see what you are doing. Great job!"
As an example of behind the scenes activity by the CVB and community groups, Dixon described how Hays recently rallied to host 800 bicyclists who needed to overnight here in their Biking Across Kansas tour.
Creative planning discussions led to a solution. The high school waived its use fee and let cyclists camp there, indoors and out. The CVB set up a shuttle service to take small groups to town for laundry or other errands. A downtown restaurant opened on a Monday when normally closed, to serve the group. Church ladies cooked mountains of breakfast burritos. CVB staff showed up to serve hungry cyclists at five a.m. "We really wanted to treat these people well so they would want to come back!"
Dixon says one of her biggest challenges is when communications break down. Sometimes it can be hard to get different groups to talk to each other. As a newcomer to Hays, she brings fresh eyes. "I am naive enough and don't know their drama or history, so I get them to a meeting and they end up talking and helping each other."
Recently, focusing on summer activities, she connected the dots for the unlikely pairing of the Sternberg Museum and municipal swimming pool. A plan is emerging for each to offer attendees a flyer for activities of the other.
When I asked what advice she would give to someone wanting to help their own town, Dixon reflected before answering. "Get your local movers and shakers together and see what the community needs."
She cited an example of Hays community members taking initiative to raise money to create its first dog park. And a local mom spearheaded fundraising for a park and playground for all, including equipment accessible for disabled children. With half a million in the bank, this group is now applying for a matching funds grant.
As Dixon makes growth of Hays’ tourism her mission, she communicates her love of its people and how they work together. She presents herself as a team player, a servant leader. Hays residents and tourists are clearly the winners.