Keith Backsen needed to work through his list of things to see and do in Omaha.
The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director, who began his new job in July after working a sales position in Spokane, Washington, started at the top: the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and the Joslyn Art Museum.
Now after months of weekend trips, he’s halfway through the visitors guide.
“I’m down to Boys Town and going to see the world’s largest stamp ball,” Backsen said.
Deborah Ward, director of marketing and communications with the visitors bureau, quickly clarified.
“Ball of stamps,” she said.
Backsen nodded his head and corrected himself. After all, he’s still learning.
Understanding the product has been one of his first and biggest jobs over the past seven months. Although he’s worked in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Portland, Oregon, he’d never set foot in Omaha until he considered working here.
In many ways, that has played in his favor.
The visitors bureau — the Omaha city department charged with tourism and convention booking — has existed in its current structure within city government for only 14 years.
In the past, Omaha had some difficulty promoting itself to people outside the Midwest, and Backsen is proof of that.
“Coming from the Northwest, you have this vision of ‘It’s cornfields, and it’s flat,’ ” Backsen said.
But after one visit, he said the city floored him with its restaurants, attractions and opportunities.
That type of reaction happens a lot, but the goal is not to leave people guessing about Omaha until they get here. The visitors bureau’s job is to turn skeptics into believers, and Backsen, with an outsider’s perspective and more than 20 years of experience in the industry, is the one who will lead that.
Backsen got started in hospitality when he was in college. Since graduating from Oregon State in 1987 he’s worked all over the country with hotels, conference organizers and tourism and convention promoters.
Over the past few years he stayed in Spokane while his daughters were in middle and high school. But when his kids left the house and the opportunity in Omaha opened up, Backsen, 51, and his wife were ready to take on a new challenge in a new city. He was hired at a salary of $150,000.
So far, Backsen’s biggest focus within the office has been rewriting job positions and adding staff.
“That was one of the first things I noticed when I got here,” Backsen said. “We were understaffed in one of our primary responsibilities, which is attracting conventions.”
Backsen said it was imperative to provide more attention on that side because the visitors bureau was coming up short against its competitors.
He’s also working outside the bureau to network in the community.
Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said Backsen has been a breath of fresh air.
“He just emanates this joviality and inclusiveness,” she said.
Barrett said Backsen brings a level of kindness that’s often lost in the corporate world. Barrett said she’s seen Backsen walk into a room where two sides are butting heads and help them find a middle ground.
“He’s a bridge builder,” Barrett said.
Barrett said she expects the visitors bureau to use different campaigns and put more emphasis on attracting business from outside the Midwest.
Michael Smith, vice president of convention sales at Travel Portland and a longtime friend of Backsen, said Backsen is someone with a rare combination of people skills and a results-oriented attitude. Smith said any city would be lucky to have had him.
“I think the city got a jewel, I really do,” Smith said. “He’s not a fly-by-night guy. He’s got a loyalty. When he takes something on, he’s going to do it the best he can.”
Backsen said he can tell Omahans want to keep innovating.
“They’re so willing to reinvest in the local community,” Backsen said. “There’s not a lot of cities like this, cities that are our size and have that kind of philanthropic community.”
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