A drive down the Taconic Parkway helped convince Mary Kay Vrba that the Hudson Valley was the place for her. It was during the 1970s, when the Nebraska native was working outside Chicago as the superintendent of recreation for a parks district. “I was thinking I’d probably gone as far as I could in that particular job, and friends invited me to come to New York for a visit,” recalls Vrba, who went to college in Nebraska and Wisconsin. “When I was driving through the Valley, I just had a feeling about it, and said to myself, ‘This is home.’ And it’s been that way ever since 1977.”
Vrba managed to set up a couple of local job interviews during that trip, one of which led to a spot as the recreation director in Pawling. She later moved on to other positions, including a stint as Dutchess County’s Commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Conservation; in 1994, she transitioned into the tourism field, serving as the Hudson River Valley Association’s director of tourism, and as a partner in the now-defunct management and marketing group Crossroads International Management. Vrba also did a stint as an adjunct instructor at New York University’s hospitality program. In 2006 she was named director of Dutchess County Tourism; in early 2012, her title expanded to executive director. And last April, the 60-year-old Beacon resident was elected to the board of directors of the Dutchess County Economic Development Corporation.
A prime mover in helping to boost the Valley as a hot travel destination, Vrba champions regional projects such as the Farm Fresh One-Day Getaways program in Dutchess. This initiative brings visitors from New York City and elsewhere into the region via Metro-North for a daylong escape.
“We have a bus waiting at the train station to take them out to tour the farms and enjoy a day in the country,” she says. “They also see where their food comes from; this helps people understand how important it is to think local and buy local.” Upwards of 4,000 people have taken part in the program in recent years — “and that doesn’t include all those who drive up here on their own to explore,” Vrba adds. Each visitor spends an average of $80 during their Valley excursion. “Tourism is one of our strongholds,” she says. “Not that it’s totally recession-proof, but we’ve managed to hold our own and grow. And it’s one industry that will never be outsourced.”
Indeed, Vrba claims that being able to think local every day is the best part of her job. “The most rewarding thing is working with all the great businesses and partners in Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley area.”
She offers some straightforward advice for women seeking to advance their careers: “Networking is important. Respond to people — literally. If someone calls or contacts you, be sure to get back to them. We need to help and assist each other, and not be afraid of competition.”