Susan Amey, president and CEO at Discover Durham, led and shifted the city’s tourism model amid a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement
By Morgan Cartier Weston
“There was an energy, a feeling, when I moved to Durham in 2005,” says Susan Amey. “Not only was the city taking off in the sense of its personality and strengths, but the community as a whole began recognizing it and embracing it.”
Susan grew up in Raleigh, but was persuaded by husband Bill Amey, a Durham native, to settle here. “I had no personal attachment to Durham at the time, but I loved being able to go downtown, pull up to the curb and walk right into a unique restaurant or business.”
She came into her role as chief marketing officer at Discover Durham in 2016 with a fresh perspective thanks to her experience in contemporary marketing. “It was interesting to learn that, even though I came from outside the tourism field, there were so many untapped opportunities to get Durham’s story out there in creative ways that would bring new people in to visit,” she says.
Susan was appointed as the visitors bureau’s president and CEO in February 2019, just in time to oversee the city’s 150th anniversary. The year-long celebration featured more than 150 events, including ways to learn about Durham’s past and get involved with its future growth. The event set the framework for a showstopping, engaging new website with a custom logo (both by Kompleks Creative) to mark the occasion, and culminated in a closing ceremony in November 2019.
Susan’s ability to lead the team in new directions proved critical a few months later when the tourism industry was rocked by the coronavirus at the beginning of 2020. “It hit so incredibly suddenly, and we immediately began brainstorming ways to quickly help businesses,” she says. Her staff posted a list of takeout dining options right away. “ A couple months later, the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront of our community’s consciousness. We started blogging on a few Black-owned businesses, and soon realized there was no complete list online. So we published that, too.” That database now showcases more than 200 restaurants, retailers and service providers.
This strategy evolved into the development of several recurring roundtable discussions. Discover Durham began hosting virtual conversations with restaurant owners, hoteliers, retailers and event professionals over the summer. “The idea for our Durham Delivers program, which delivers takeout to neighborhoods without any fees to the restaurants, came out of one of the roundtables,” Susan says. The program has now generated more than $120,000 in incremental revenue for Durham restaurants.
Susan’s biggest takeaway from the past year is that destination marketing requires an investment in the destination itself. “In the past, we have been so focused on bringing in visitors and tourism revenue, but we missed the value of our purpose, which is improving the lives of Durhamites year-round,” she says. “This has been an opportunity to focus beyond the numbers and instead on people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Thanks to its direct involvement in bringing people together to affect change, the organization achieved its greatest goal: the success and survival of the small businesses that make Durham special. “I’m glad we are coming out of this with a wider and deeper set of relationships with our community,” Susan says. “The unique energy in Durham has taken on a much more personal measure for me. Now we measure our success not just in numbers, but in hope.”