Marci Claude grew up in Columbia, SC, but her heart belongs to Gatlinburg, TN. As the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB) Public Relations Manager and unofficial city spokesperson, Marci travels far and wide to get people excited about this treasured Southern city. And while her job is undoubtedly the perfect fit for her, it was a hard-won role as she returned to the workforce at the age of 51 after raising three children and homeschooling two. Find out the challenges and triumphs of that experience, learn what it’s like to manage public relations for a tourism destination during a pandemic, and find out her best advice for other women looking to return to their careers later in life. Meet this most inspiring FACE of the South, Marci Claude!
What brought you to Gatlinburg?
I got a degree in broadcast communications from the University of Tennessee. When I graduated, I landed my first job at a Knoxville television station as the weekend weather anchor. I was also a part-time ski instructor at Ober Gatlinburg. I started doing that in college. I met my husband at the Rolf Lanz Ski Shop in Knoxville — he was the manager there. He was servicing my ski boots, and he worked up the nerve to ask me on a date. We fell in love on the slopes at Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area. He was always there when I was there. We got married in 1989 and moved from Knoxville to Gatlinburg in 2000 when he left ski retail and took over operations at Ober Gatlinburg. Ober holds a special place in our hearts. We have raised three skiers there and are looking forward to introducing our grandchildren to skiing at Ober.
You stayed home to raise and homeschool your children. When did you decide to re-enter the workforce, and what was that like?
Our oldest went to public school. He and his wife serve in the Coast Guard and have lived all over the country. They have a beautiful daughter. Sarah graduated from homeschool high school, and Joshua went into public school for eighth grade — that was 2010. That’s when I began looking for a full-time job. I really wanted to get back to my career, and I didn’t know how to do that. It took three years of looking — I was very picky, and there were lots of tears and disappointments. I had been home with my children for 18 years. I’d worked little jobs to supplement the household income, and I volunteered a lot. The point is that as apprehensive as I am to share my age, it is encouraging to know that it is never too late to restart a career. The fear of aging out of any job is real and something women should not have to worry about.
You mention that there were lots of tears and disappointments in that process. What was the root of the tears?
The Gatlinburg CVB was undergoing an organizational restructuring. My goal was to apply for the events team, but I discovered on Facebook that I missed that opportunity when a friend posted she had gotten the position. There were tears and discouragement from that. Then I submitted my resume after learning that the CVB PR manager was leaving for another opportunity. After a couple of interviews and an agonizingly long wait, I was offered the position.
What was it like going back to work after 50?
I was very fortunate to be able to pick my career back up. Having a background in television and PR and a specific skill set has helped a lot. However, so much changed in the time that I was home — technology, primarily. What I have learned is that with hard work and encouragement and support from my coworkers, I have found that I can learn new tricks and keep up. I don’t have to be good at everything — that’s why we have a team. I just have to do my part and be willing to learn. One of my favorite sayings is, “Leaders are learners.” Be teachable.
How do you think your age has helped you in your role?
Maturity has benefited me greatly. I have worn several hats in this position: PR Manager for the CVB and Chamber of Commerce, and Public Information Officer for the city. When the Chimney Tops 2 wildfires swept out of the [Great Smoky Mountain] National Park into Gatlinburg, it was a solid year of intense communications — a steep learning curve in crisis communications surrounding an unprecedented disaster. As city spokesperson and primary media contact, that year presented many challenges and opportunities. My work in 2017 earned me recognition as “PR Manager of the Year for a Large Organization” from the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. I hope to never have another year like that!
What advice would you offer a peer or friend on how to navigate job hunting after 50?
I don’t think you should take for granted the wisdom and experience that comes with time. You don’t have to sell yourself short just because you may not be able to make an Excel spreadsheet. At my age — or at any later age — you bring a lot to the table, and it doesn’t have to boil down to tech skills or a complete understanding of social media management and things like that. The things you need to know come along in time. It’s what you have in your head that makes you relevant and needed in today’s workforce. And to the generation of young women who are entering the workforce now, I would say it is refreshing and interesting to watch them come into the workplace with energy and enthusiasm, but don’t take for granted what has been done before you to pave the way to enter into the workplace today. Don’t be dismissive of those who came before you, and especially don’t do it on social media!
You mention the wildfires. How was that experience similar to or different from navigating the pandemic?
The pandemic has been another unprecedented crisis. Lessons learned from 2017 have certainly helped our organization navigate through the COVID-19 crisis. My role has shifted into full-time PR for Gatlinburg as the city hired a full-time Public Information Officer. Now my role focuses on the PR and marketing messaging around the destination and working on the Chamber of Commerce membership communications. The marketing team has worked diligently through the pandemic to strategize messaging during the quarantine and how to approach post-quarantine messaging.
So much of our conversations have turned to crisis communication. There is no substitute for going through a crisis. You can go through [crisis management] classes all day long, but until you have been through [a crisis], you can’t predict how it’s going to go. It’s a learning process — the mistakes are going to happen, but you have to trust your gut.
What is one thing you think people would be surprised to know about the work that you do?
From the outside looking in, my job is a lot of fun. We enjoy special events, meeting people, traveling and telling stories about Gatlinburg. The joy of succeeding in garnering amazing accolades for Gatlinburg is a wonderful benefit. But so much hard work goes on behind the scenes to reap those rewards. As a spokesperson, preparation and being able to think on your feet are critical. I have to know the subject matter thoroughly and be prepared for the occasional random question that journalists may throw at you. There is definitely skill required for live interviews.
It is also important to note that it takes a community to help me do my job. My hard-working coworkers and the business community work so hard to provide our visitors a quality experience while they are here. Their everyday work ethic makes my job so much easier. I would be remiss not to mention that the city provides beautiful streetscapes, public transportation, beautiful parks and recreation areas. I am so proud of Gatlinburg and so fortunate to have so much to talk about.
Are you starting to see people return to the area? What sort of measures are in place to help people feel as safe as possible right now?
Yes, people are returning. Tourism is our only industry, and we rely on visitors for our livelihood. We have a two-fold strategy. With the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce, our business community has gotten to work implementing new procedures to make their properties compliant with the Tennessee Pledge — the guidelines created by Governor Bill Lee to open the state safely. We also ask our visitors to utilize responsible travel practices. We know everyone is tired of quarantine and ready to get moving. So, when you travel, remember to “Do your part and stay apart” — practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently and wear a facial covering. We placed banners around the city to remind visitors to do their part while visiting Gatlinburg. A pandemic is new territory. We are all going to have to work together to make this work.
When you aren’t working, how do you spend your free time?
We garden, and I love hiking in the mountains, cooking and working out at the gym. We take a beach vacation and a ski vacation every year. We spend as much time as we can with our kids. And we got a dog!
If you weren’t at your current job, what is a dream job you’d love to have?
I’d love to be a talk show host.
What is the best advice you have received or can offer?
Always look for the silver lining – and always believe the best.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Good coffee, good wine and a good night’s sleep.
Thank you, Marci. Learn more about Gatlinburg HERE.
All photography provided unless otherwise noted.