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White is johnny-on-the-spot

Katrina White loves to read, and she often uses her leisure-time pursuit in her job as the travel trade manager for the Rhode Island Tourism Division.

“I do a lot of reading,” she said. “Most of what I read is Rhode Island history, and most of it finds its way into a tour.”

For example, food tours include the historic Slater Mill, where guides discuss how its role in helping start the Industrial Revolution spurred changes in family dining patterns, which ultimately led to canned and frozen food.

Katrina White

Travel Trade Manager
Rhode Island Tourism Division

Hometown: Plymouth, Mass.
Age: 45
Education: Bachelor’s degree, hospitality sciences, Johnson and Wales University, Providence, R.I.
Family: Husband, Brian; 10-year-old daughter, Lillian; mother, Judy Zukowski, with whom they live
Leisure pursuits: Cooking and reading

“Because of this building, people had to change what and when they ate and how it was cooked,” she said. “People had to completely adjust from life on the farm to living life according to the mill bell, when they had to be at work, how long they had for lunch, when they got home to prepare meals.”

White said product development is one of the things she loves most about her job, and she is always looking for ways to add unusual experiences that groups cannot get anywhere else or “taking an existing site and putting a twist that almost makes it a new product.”

For example, she said a small group of 14 from the Cincinnati Art Museum came to Providence to tour the Rhode Island School of Design. “We were able to get them into private homes to see private collections, and a gallery owner had them in her home for dinner,” she said.

“We take people to an oyster farm. One of our tour companies specializes in culinary, and that is one of the things she does. When I tell tour companies about that, they say, ‘Wow, I never heard of being able to do something like that.’ It gets their attention.

“Creating those special opportunities is what operators are looking for, something to differentiate them from their competitors.

“A lot of it really has to do with understanding the needs of groups and being able to work that into programming for them,” said White.

White said developing distinctive products is critical for Rhode Island, which often gets overshadowed by nearby Boston and Cape Cod.

White prepares to cook johnnycakes at the National Tour Association Convention. Courtesy National Tour Association

“When I first started, what I would hear from operators is that they stopped in Rhode Island on the way to Cape Cod, or they drive through it on the way to the Cape,” she said. “I said, ‘Just give me half a day, a morning or an afternoon, to show you a little bit.’ It seems to have worked very well.

“Most of the time, once people get here, they are wowed.”

White also converts another leisure-time pursuit — cooking — into a promotional effort for the state. She has become popular at the annual meetings of the National Tour Association and the American Bus Association by frying cornmeal flatbread, known as johnnycakes, at the Rhode Island booth.

“I chose it for its history: It is a very Rhode Island food,” she said. “Also, they take a few minutes to cook, so I talk it up. They [attendees] get a little snack, and I get to learn about them.”

Youthful initiative

Katrina White believes that the travel industry is missing a critical opportunity in trying to attract people in their 20s and 30s to group travel. And she believes that they will travel on a motorcoach with a group if given the proper incentives.

“Boomers and seniors are holding on to their money, but the 20s and 30s are still traveling,” she said. “We have to make it applicable to them and get them interested; it’s understanding what these people are looking for.

“One way to attract them is through technology. Have WiFi on coaches to keep them connected, have operators negotiate with hotels that Internet is included in the room rate.

“We have to bring them into group travel, or it will die out. If positioned correctly, I think they would.”

Although White has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality services from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, it took her a few years in the hotel and restaurant business before she discovered her true love in the travel industry.

About 13 years ago, White quit her restaurant job in Orlando, Fla., and moved back to Salem, Mass., and got a job as a tour guide with the Salem Trolley Co. The move had both personal and professional consequences.

She met her future husband, Brian, who was one of the trolley drivers, and a friend told her about an opening for the director of sales at the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I applied and got the job,” she said. “I got to work for an amazing person, Michelle Mann, who is still one of my heroes, and learned an incredible amount from her.”

After five years, White took a job in tourism sales at the Providence/Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau and, a year later, moved to the state tourism division.

“Once I started at North of Boston, I realized this is what I am suppose to be doing,” she said. “I love what I do, and I get to do it every day. A lot of people don’t have that luxury.”