When Mary Kay Vrba was growing up in Nebraska, spending summers at relatives’ farms and working in her parents’ butcher shop, she didn’t think too far into the future. “Being in a small town and going to a small Catholic school I really had no idea what kind of careers were available to me,” says Vrba. “I didn’t even decide to go to college until about four weeks before I graduated from high school.”
Vrba has come a long way since those days, including not only graduating from college but also from graduate school — and a 40-plus-year career in tourism, most recently as Dutchess Tourism, Inc.’s president and CEO. Now, she’s moving on to the next phase of her life: retirement. On July 20, the woman who has been the face of Dutchess County tourism, and the international face of Hudson Valley tourism, hung up her shingle.
Under Vrba’s leadership, Dutchess County’s tourism industry has grown to more than 4.5 million visitors annually, spending more than $640 million and supporting more than 11,000 local jobs. She has traveled the world with I LOVE NEW YORK and has hosted education trips for international travel agents and tour operators here in Dutchess County.
Vrba may not have had grand plans as a high school senior, but she’s says she’s an adventurous person. It’s what brought her to the East Coast, despite never having been here in her life. Soon after accepting the job as the Director of Parks and Recreation in Pawling, Vrba learned she had a connection to the town. Her father was stationed there during World War II, when the Trinity-Pawling School was a rest and recuperation site for Army Air Force personnel. “I often say Dutchess County called me,” she says.
Reflecting back on her 26 years in tourism with the county, Vrba says establishing Dutchess Tourism, Inc as an independent 501c 6 in 2014, is one of the accomplishments she is most proud of. “For years, tourism was a division of Dutchess Economic Development Agency,” she explains. “I often felt that if we really wanted to make a difference in the county, we needed to be an independent agency so that we could move forward when things happen and could be creative.”
The county executive liked her plan and it happened. “That was a real fulfillment of a vision, being an economic partner and being at the table to make a difference in this ‘town.”
And that she did. Dutchess Tourism Inc. now provides more than 600 tourism-related entities in the county with business, marketing, education, and other support. Even in her final months at the job, Vrba was working harder than ever, helping local businesses navigate their way through shutdowns and re-openings associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been pretty devastated as an industry across the board because of the shutdowns of all the arts, the events, the historic sites, the hotels, and the restaurants,” Vrba said when she spoke to us during Phase 2 of the re-opening. “But we’ve been able to make it through so far, and now we’re seeing a gradual increase in occupancy at the hotels and, of course, with outdoor dining. That will really help.”
When asked to name the top memories of her career, Vrba admits that it’s hard to pinpoint, but acknowledges that the recognition and honors she’s received over the years — of which there are many, including Hudson Valley Magazine’s Women in Business, and most recently being named a Power Women honoree by Moves Magazine — are especially meaningful. ”It’s very humbling when someone wants to honor you. You don’t do [this job] for the recognition, but when people [recognize your work], it’s a very great feeling.”
As far as next plans for the woman who has crafted so many itineraries, Vrba says she will travel for a few months and “then we will see from there. I am more an in-the-moment kind of person.”