George Williams, the state's director of tourism for the past 10 years, said yesterday that he will step down in March to join his wife, who has taken a new job in New Orleans.
Williams, 60, said yesterday that he is considering a position marketing casinos in the Biloxi, Miss., area and also has agreed to lend his name to national and international tourism consulting.
"It's always been in the back of our minds that when we started settling down, we'd want to do it around family," said Williams.
The move will bring Williams and his wife, Tish, closer to her hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss. The two have twin daughters who are 3 years old.
During Williams' tenure, visitors to Maryland have increased from about 15 million a year to 22 million and the annual economic impact increased from about $4.5 billion to $7.8 billion, Williams said. The department's budget has risen from $4.8 million to $13.4 million this fiscal year, still far short of competing states, he said.
Williams is proud of those numbers and of his role in improving the tourism industry's image as an economic development agent.
But there is considerable work to be done in that area, he said. The state also must continue to expand its attractions by finding new ways to market its natural resources to visitors.
"If we continue to focus on not just recognizing preservation for preservation's sake, but develop these things so that they can generate more economic growth, there's no limit to where Maryland can go," he said.
Williams has received high praise from tourism officials across the state.
"George has had a lot of great ideas and really tried to move the state tourism effort forward," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.
He also has increased the professionalism of the office and given it improved national visibility, said Peggy Wall, president and CEO of the Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau.
An inherent challenge to the director's post is balancing 25 local tourism efforts with the state's, Wall said.
"If there were points of friction, I feel that sometimes the local programs weren't getting the respect they deserved in terms of generating significant numbers of visitors to the state," she said.
When Williams responded to a national search and interviewed for his job 10 years ago, he quickly won over the interviewers with his energy, expertise and marketing savvy.
"As soon as we interviewed George, we all said hire him," recalled Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association, who was on the interview panel.
Among Williams' greatest accomplishments: the close working relationship he has fostered between his office and the trade associations, his tying of marketing to research and his role in establishing the Maryland Tourism Development Board, a private and public sector board that studies the use of marketing dollars.
"We've seen growth in Maryland's tourism industry when other states around us are not seeing the same kind of growth," McCulloch said. "That's because our money has been targeted and not used scattershot."
"George just plain has a vision," McCulloch said. "Because of him, we really have seen tremendous growth in tourism since 10 years ago."
Williams' departure comes at an interesting time for the state's tourism industry.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. recently asked a group of legislators to evaluate whether Maryland's tourism office should be made a Cabinet-level office, reporting directly to the governor. The House Economic Matters and Appropriations committees are expected to complete their study before the start of the legislative session in January.
It is unclear who will replace Williams.
The appointment will be made by Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, who oversees the tourism office. Lewin said a national search might be conducted, but a dozen people within the department would be considered.
McCulloch is convinced that the state should do a national search.
"To not do a national search would set tourism back in Maryland several steps," she said.