Native Memphian Mary Schmitz has lived in many places, from the east coast to the west, and has truly found that there’s no place like home. “My roots run deep,” she says, “but I do understand the desire to experience new city scenes, new foods, and new adventures.” When visitors follow their wanderlust to Memphis, she wants them to see the city that she loves – full of gracious, helpful people and amazing, diverse options for dining, entertainment, and activities. Her job as Executive Director at Welcome to Memphis combines her love of Memphis with her passion for supporting our hospitality industry. Meet Mary Schmitz, our latest FACE of Memphis with a heart for her city and the dedicated hospitality workers who make it so welcoming.
How did Welcome to Memphis get its start?
It was founded in 2002 as the Memphis Tourism Education Foundation (MTEF), a subsidiary of Memphis Tourism. In 2015, Memphis Tourism went through a strategic planning process called Tourism 20/20. We found that while some people may be down on Memphis as a city, they loved their own neighborhood. The closer you got to where they lived, the more intensely proud they were of their home. For example, if someone lived in Cooper-Young, they LOVED Cooper-Young, yet they might not be as excited about Memphis. Later that year, MTEF changed the name to Welcome to Memphis and recruited its own board of directors. We started out with a hope to educate people about different areas, so that they could not only speak with pride about their own neighborhood but others as well.
How did you get involved?
I moved back to Memphis from New York to take a job with Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, now Memphis Tourism. When my boss asked me if I wanted to run the Memphis Tourism Education Foundation, I said YES! It was a chance to make a difference, to create a new angle for tourism, and to be a part of the heart and soul of the hospitality industry. When the foundation changed to Welcome to Memphis, I was a part of creating it from the ground up. It was a great opportunity to build a new brand.
What do you see as the main mission of Welcome to Memphis?
We started Welcome to Memphis with a very tight mission – to support the hospitality profession, the people who are in direct customer service. We train and inspire them to be the best ambassadors possible for authentic Memphis hospitality. They are our first line of contact with our guests, and the first ones to deliver the Memphis brand.
Can you tell us more about “authentic Memphis hospitality”?
There are requirements for any service job, but you can always deliver a genuine gesture of hospitality. When we are training employees, we say that unless your employer requires it, there’s not a set script you have to follow. You say what comes naturally to you – we encourage them to speak from the heart. It’s about giving a little bit of yourself to each visitor, in a way that is your own authentic gesture.
The other piece we give them is knowledge of Memphis. Hospitality workers want to be an authority on their city, and visitors want to ask locals where to eat and what to do. We arm hospitality professionals with the knowledge of what is available in Memphis so they can speak with that authority and assurance.
How do you train and motivate the workforce to deliver this Memphis brand of hospitality?
Before 2020, we offered public training classes twice a month at our offices. We also went to new hire orientations, employee rallies, employee lunches, and onsite training days. We made it festive and fun. We want to go back to providing in-person training as soon as we can — it’s just stronger and better. Until then, we have virtual delivery, and we will hopefully transition to hybrid sessions soon. We are also developing a free app for employees that will deliver important and helpful Memphis information.
We created an incentive program called the Pick Awards in 2015 to recognize and celebrate the hospitality workers who deliver excellent customer service, are knowledgeable about Memphis, and have pride in our city. We receive nominations throughout the year and host a Pick Awards Party to announce a winner and two runners-up. Our best Pick Award program was in 2019 – 500 people attended the party at the FedEx Forum, including the mayor. It was just great! We had to skip 2020 and now we are working with other hospitality associations to have one large hybrid award presentation in the fall [of 2021]. It is heartwarming to me that we already have hundreds of nominations, mostly from visitors who had such a positive experience that they took the time to let us know about it.
You’ve mentioned two ways you’ve had to make changes since the onset of COVID-19. What is the biggest pivot you’ve had to make to meet the needs of hospitality professionals during the pandemic?
COVID-19 has hit the hospitality workforce very hard, and our biggest pivot has been from training and incentives to offering grants. That has taken precedence over everything else. We were one of several non-profits that partnered with the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis (CFGM) and the City of Memphis to deliver CARES funding to individuals. Later grants were possible through the Pay It Forward Mid-South campaign for the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund, hosted by CFGM. We’ve delivered 3,268 grants for almost $1.1 million.
What fulfills you the most about your job?
Hearing about and meeting the people Welcome to Memphis serves. People give me little notes after training with us. The very first one I received, I still have on my bulletin board behind my desk. It reads, “I have greatly benefited from this program.” Another person wrote, “There is so much about my city I didn’t know.” Anytime I get a little note like that, it’s as good as a paycheck!
I love reading the nomination stories for the Pick Awards. Everyone in the hospitality workforce has a good story, something really charming they bring to an interaction with a guest. When I read the stories, it reminds me of how wonderful the people in this city are – how kind and giving.
What do you do to get your day off on the right foot?
I have coffee, do Sudoku, and walk two miles.
What is your best piece of advice?
Be ready for anything, plan nothing. I’m a planner but you have to be ready for things to change. The best parenting advice I got was a different take on an old saying: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong. Just get it done! Don’t get hung up on making every single thing perfect.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
The outdoors, humor and laughter, and coffee.
Thank you, Mary!