Q&A with the Chamber’s new executive director: Heather Leonard

By Kendra Walker

Heather Leonard is the new executive director of the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce. Heather has a rich background in Crested Butte hospitality, including working as the general manager of the Grand Lodge and director of lodging for CBMR. She has served on many local boards, including the Chamber, Crested Butte Arts Festival, Crested Butte Friends of the Library and Crested Butte Creative District. The Crested Butte News recently sat down with her to learn more about her vision for the Chamber moving forward. 

How long have you lived in the valley? What brought you here?

I first came to Crested Butte in 2008. I got offered a job as night operations manager at CBMR and came here sight unseen. I went back to Alaska to manage a hotel in Anchorage and then came back to Crested Butte in 2009 as the hotel manager for the Lodge at Mountaineer Square. I’ve been here ever since. 

What led you to this position with the Chamber?

I was a bit burnt out with hospitality from the pandemic and the staffing and housing crises. I left the resort in 2022 to manage the LIV Sotheby’s office, which gave me a chance to step back and remember what I loved about living here. Then when this executive director position opened up, it was the perfect chance to step back into hospitality. It really is my passion; I love making connections with people. It’s a great chance to connect people and connect myself with other businesses and help them. I look at our visitor’s centers and want to make sure we are sharing information in the most relevant way, and examine how we work with the towns and community to create a great experience for people who come here. And I want to balance that with sustainability—as we become more and more popular, it becomes more critical to manage that responsibly and maintain what we love about this place. 

What do you love about living here?

I love winters, but summers are why I’m here. The sun shines every day and it’s wildflowers and rainbows. I love being outside, hiking or Nordic skiing when I’ve got the time. I’ve lived in town since 2014 in one of the alleys, and I love riding my bike around town with my 14-year-old yellow lab, Chloe.

What I love about this place is that sense of community. Because when things are hard, it’s not all rainbows and wildflowers, but the community comes together to support each other.

What are some of your goals/vision for the Chamber?

I’ve been able to be a part of the Chamber’s strategic planning sessions for all but one of the last couple of years, so the overall mission and vision of the Chamber are ones that I’m not only aware of but that I had a hand in creating. The mission of the Chamber has been to “provide communication, event and advocacy services for our members, our community and our visitors.” The vision is to “lead mountain resort communities in visitor engagement and member business prosperity.” 

When it comes to my own goals of how we go about achieving our mission, I want to see us make better connections with our members, our community and our visitors so that we are achieving our vision. I see that happening through creating vibrant Business After Hours events where connections can be made in person. 

I’d like to see the Chamber consider what other kind of in-person networking opportunities we can create. I also think there’s an opportunity to improve the content and design of our website so that it is a better resource for our businesses and visitors seeking information. I know the Chamber can help create greater depth to how we communicate with each other and visitors and how we connect them with the information they need and want to know when they’re here. I’m excited to share more details in the weeks and months to come. 

What are your ideas for re-imagined visitor center operations and direction per the towns’ requests? What do you think the Chamber’s role and priorities should be for this community?

Let me first start by saying that most of the roles I’ve served in have included some component of sharing information with people, be that from behind the Grand Lodge front desk or beneath the info tent at the Farmer’s Market. I like helping people. I like problem-solving. I like sharing what I love about where I live with people. And I’m always looking for ways to do things better. So stepping into the ED role during a time where we’re being asked to re-imagine the visitor’s centers operations excites me.

As a business operator in Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, I’ve leaned on the visitor’s centers as sources of information that I needed to operate my business and to share my business information with the community and visitors. It wasn’t until this past summer, though, when I found myself stepping into the shoes of our visitor’s center staff, that I really considered the depth of information and interaction available through the visitor’s centers. I’d be at the 4-Way around lunchtime at least once or twice a week, and there’d often be a room full of people of various generations asking about everything from where to find a notary to where to go hiking. Even today, I was up in the Mt. CB visitor’s center and discovered that the staff who work out of that venue keep a cash bank on hand to provide change to people who ask for it. Seems like a small thing, but having spent a significant amount of time working the Grand Lodge front desk during the summer of 2021, I can tell you that knowing this would’ve made a big difference to me and to the guests who continually approached me asking for change. Most base area front desks stopped carrying cash during COVID, and to my knowledge this never returned. My only option for folks was to send them to a bank down in town or to a business that was handling cash, neither of which was ideal.  

This is such a great example of the fact that the staff at both visitor’s centers are doing more than people may think they’re doing. But it’s also an example of how we’re waiting for people to come to us to help them. So that’s one of the first things that we’re looking at—what are the visitor’s centers doing that no one knows we’re doing? What are we not doing that we should be doing? And then how do we go about connecting and communicating with people instead of just waiting for them to come to us? 

The board has created a committee focused on visitor’s center operations. Our focus this month is evaluating other Chamber-operated visitor’s centers to see what they’re doing and how they’re funded. We’ve evaluated the action plans as laid out by the towns, and we’ve reached out to better understand what their expectations are for the visitor’s centers. We’re working to establish a mission and vision statement for the visitor’s centers. And we’re working on how we connect better with our visitors and connect our visitors better with our community. We’re in the exploration phase, but we’re working on action plans that take place immediately, in 2024, and then into the future. In the next month, we are working to add cell phone charging stations to both visitor’s center locations so folks have a place to recharge a phone. We’re looking at making the 4-Way visitor’s center more welcoming by adding some soft seating so there’s some place to sit down while you charge a phone. We’re inviting folks to stop in for a free cup of coffee, cocoa and information. Our Google analytics showed that last month most people came to our website looking for information on parking. We’re improving our information on parking through our website and also considering how we use social media to answer these questions. 

Next month, we’re hoping to roll out a kiosk at the 4-Way that’s been in the works since last summer, and we’re applying for a grant to bring a kiosk to the Mt. CB Visitor’s Center this summer. This kiosk will be self-serve and appeal to those folks who don’t necessarily want to talk to someone, but it will also free up our time during the busy months to work with those people who want that personal connection. We’re also considering how we get the word out about these kiosks, because if we install them, but no one knows they’re there, then what’s the point? I think that’s really what the priorities of the Chamber and the Visitor’s Centers—increasing and improving our communication so we can continue to create and maintain connections. I’m excited to share more details as we work through exploration and create clear action plans for the future. 

Any new events coming down the pipeline? 

We will definitely be continuing with the events and programs that we have. We want to keep that local component and continue to grow them. There are no plans at this time to take on additional events, we’re trying to manage what we have and make sure we’re doing the best job with those first. 

Crafted was a new event this year and it opened my eyes to how many creative people we have in our valley. I would love to explore how the Chamber can help support creatives in the Gunnison Valley. 

How many local businesses are Chamber members?

It fluctuates, but we usually have around 350 businesses.

What else would you like to share with the community?

I am excited for the future of the Chamber. I think there are so many opportunities to reconsider how we support our members and the community.  We have a great board who are all engaged. They’ve set up committees to dig into various aspects of Chamber and Visitors Center operations. We have openings for chamber members not on the board to join these committees. I welcome feedback. I’m not afraid of feedback and striving to make things better. I hope people reach out, I want to hear from people on what I can do better and what’s working well.

You can reach Heather at director@cbchamber.com

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