Sarah Hodges left her native Henry County for 12 years. During that time, she earned a college degree and worked at a dream of a first job with The Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, Fla.
At the same time in the Martinsville-Henry County area, trails were developed, an inventory of eight museums was fine-tuned, a sports complex was built, the Martinsville Speedway grew, two theater groups thrived and more.
Now, Hodges, the new director of tourism for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), is helping others find out what she learned when she returned home: There is a lot to do in this area.
“We have more than most” communities, she said, citing two theater groups, a visitor center, Patrick Henry Community College, meeting space at the New College Institute, wineries and a brewery, among other attractions. There also is a lot of outdoor recreation that offers healthy, active options which appeal to baby boomers and others, she said. There are festivals, music venues, Philpott Lake and the Smith River and on and on.
The EDC’s Tourism Division supports and markets local venues that are engaged in tourism-related activities, such as the Martinsville Speedway, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Piedmont Arts, Philpott Lake, the Smith River Sports Complex and numerous other attractions, vineyards, music venues, restaurants and small businesses.
In short, Hodges said her job is marketing the community to outsiders. “You want to market your community as somewhere people want to come and spend a length of time and money. Marketing to people who already live here is great, but the main goal is to bring people from outside the area in,” she said.
The Martinsville Speedway is a huge part of that, Hodges said.
“It puts the town on the map” and provides name recognition, she said.
Hodges met with speedway officials as soon as she started her job March 6, she said, and she said she will continue to help the track mark its 70th anniversary this year.
“Any way we can make that a better experience for them” is a high priority, she said.
Today, tourists want “authentic experiences,” Hodges said. “People have gone to the big city and done that. Now they want an authentic experience.”
That means visitors are looking for authentic history or storytelling experiences that set an area apart from others with similar landscapes, she said. “Everyone loves to feel they are part of a story that is somewhat unheard,” she added, citing the experience of mining for gold in Dahlonega, Ga.
To help create such experiences, Hodges plans to create travel packages that preplan trips and attractions. For instance, she said if someone wants to take a county-long bike trip, it already would be mapped out for multiple counties. She added that idea grew from an ongoing project to connect all the trails in the area.
She also plans to ramp up the Tourism Division’s digital marketing efforts in the next few months, and she has undergone training to learn how to do that. Digital advertising which tracks the people who use it and provides data on what they look at can help the EDC target its branding efforts, she said.
The EDC’s Tourism Division also plans to increase its advertising on the Virginia State Tourism website. That site is No. 1 in the nation, Hodges said.
Tourism already contributes millions of dollars to the area’s economy. According to Virginia Tourism Commission estimated figures for 2015, tourism accounted for 757 jobs in 2015, up 4.8 percent from 2011; $67.8 million in expenditures, up 9.9 percent from 2011; $1.5 million in local tax receipts, up 11.5 percent from 2011; $14.3 million in payroll, up 12.6 percent from 2011; and $3 million in state tax receipts, up 10 percent from 2011.
Some of those expenditures ripple through an area. For instance, when people come into the community they buy food, gas and other items from local businesses and they may stay in local hotels and motels. That, Hodges said, supports the businesses and generates tax revenues.
Local residents are receptive to efforts to boost tourism, she said. “It’s more face-to-face and getting to know who I’m working with. This town responds really well to someone they know, someone they trust. It helps a lot being local … it helps a million times,” she said.
Hodges never thought she would be back home and working in tourism. She always wanted to work with NASCAR, so she had envisioned a future working with racing in Charlotte, Atlanta or maybe Richmond.
“I was ready to jump to a bigger town,” she said. But “as you get to 30, you’re ready to slow down a bit. It’s nice to be back.”
Hodges graduated from Martinsville High School in 2004 and the University of Tennessee with a major in advertising and a minor in business administration.
Two weeks after graduating from college in 2009, she was accepted into the College Program of The Walt Disney Co. That program hires college students or recent graduates who fill in the gaps in the Disney staff. She worked as a lifeguard in that program for seven months, and continued for another six months as a regular employee.
Her work with Disney veered from her advertising major in college, but that was fine with Hodges. The University of Tennessee’s advertising program was rigorous, often involving 70 hours a week, to prepare graduates for careers in a rigorous field, she said. So she thought she would work at Disney for six months “and then head out to real life.”
It turned out she found real life at Disney, instead.
After working as a lifeguard, Hodges joined ESPN Wide World of Sports, which is owned by Disney and also located in Orlando. As an events coordinator, she was the go-between for clients and the ESPN facilities. For instance, if there was an AAU basketball tournament there and teams needed water at the court, she took care of it. Hodges said she did everything from helping lay a basketball floor to working in a distribution tent and warehouse.
“I learned a lot,” she said. “You learn everything about an event from the bottom up so when you make a decision at a higher level, you understand everything. You see the big picture.”
Hodges then was offered a Temporary Assignment (TA) with Disney Park Event Operations Signature Hard Tickets Event Team. That team worked with events that were not included with a regular Disney ticket, such as the Halloween and Christmas parties and the candlelight processional at Epcot.
In her six months on that job, Hodges said she learned about Disney from the vantage of its guests.
“Disney is a wonderful place and everyone loves going there, but sometimes things go wrong,” she said, adding that is difficult when someone saves for a Disney trip for years and a problem arises. “You have to have compassion. You start over with each person. Each time is the first time that person told you what went wrong. You can’t let it bother you. You have to handle it and shake it off. It took me all eight years to feel like I was getting good at it.”
Hodges’ next post was as a competition coordinator and sports specialist for premium and special events at ESPN Wide World of Sports. She worked with events outside the regularly scheduled activities, such as the Atlanta Braves spring training program, Orlando soccer team and the Iger Games (Robert Iger is chairman and CEO of The Disney Co.), among other things. For her first client, Bombardier, they built a two-mile off-road course for testing a new model of all-terrain vehicle.
She also ran Disney logistics and procurement. Among other things, that involved arranging equipment, tables, chairs, generators, tents and more for about 26,000 runners on marathon weekends.
In just less than a year, Hodges was chosen to be an Emerging Leader at Disney, in which she underwent eight weeks of management training. For the next three years she was the recreation manager for the Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa and Disney’s Old Key West resort, in charge of pool attendants, lifeguards, children’s activities and the community hall.
That job involved some branding and ensuring that everything was done with Disney quality, Hodges said.
Hodges defined that quality: “It can take a lot longer from start to finish, but it’s always well done. It teaches you to look at every detail. … Quality over quantity is a good message that I take with me” from Disney.
“It was a great place to work. I really enjoyed it,” Hodges said. “I loved my job; I loved my team.”
But after three years as a recreation manager, Hodges decided she needed to move to learn new things and grow. She interviewed for several positions but didn’t find the right job until her mother told her about the tourism opening at the EDC in Martinsville.
Part of the appeal of moving back home for Hodges was the chance to help maintain “Hemlock Haven,” the 500-acre farm in Rangeley that has been in her family since 1778. Her parents, Michael and Rita Hodges, live there now, and Sarah Hodges plans to move into her grandparents’ former house on the property.
Hemlock Haven has been a dairy and cattle farm in the past. Now, it is rented out but she and other family members want to explore growing their own crops there.
Hodges, 31, said she is not the only young person returning to their roots here. She sees her contemporaries coming back by choice. “There is a lot of positivity among people my age,” she added.
She also sees a bright future for the Martinsville-Henry County area.
“I think Martinsville already is on the way up,” she said, adding that she believes the whole area is on the upswing. “There already is so much to do here.”