In preparation for writing this tribute I tried to remember the first time I met Nancy. I cannot recall but a good guess is that I met her when my husband and I owned a tour company and participated in the McAllen travel show about 20 years ago. I have no memory of Nancy ever being a stranger. It feels like we have been friends and colleagues forever. Nancy connects with people naturally.
She knows no stranger, and nothing is impossible for her. I learned that soon enough when, in 2012, Nancy, the chairman at the time, and the South Texas Nature board of directors offered me the job of director of this growing tourism marketing cooperative.
I was very familiar with the organization for during my time as director of the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau Nancy invited us to join. What is South Texas Nature? STN was founded under Nancy’s leadership in 2001. Her vision was shared by Martha Noel, then president of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, Connie Ledbetter then with the South Padre Island CVB, Keith Hackland, owner of the Alamo Inn B&B, Aida Lerma with the Mission Chamber at the time and Robbie Cabrera from Pharr among several other tourism professionals in the RGV.
South Texas Nature is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of its member destinations among traveling birders. Nancy knew then that working together as a region was the only way to compete in a global market. She understands that as a region we are a force to be reckoned with. An example of this is our annual participation in the British Bird Fair. For fifteen years we have represented our Valley members in Britain. Those in the industry know that it is not uncommon to see British birders in the RGV. STN opened the doors to the European birding market. Think of this; could every single city in the Valley afford to send a representative to England, purchase a booth, print the materials needed to make a good impression? And if so, would it make sense or create confusion among potential visitors?
By creating a nature tourism marketing co-op, resources went even further allowing participation in other national and international shows.
Another part of our marketing efforts includes media visits in Europe. And if someone out there thinks this must be nice, you have not been on a mission trip with Nancy Millar. Intense research, planning itineraries and scheduling appointments prior to our trip is the easy part. Once there, Nancy zooms around cities with the energy of a tornado and I am expected to do the same. To top it off, for a couple of trips she suggested that we gift the hardcover Valley Land Fund Coffee Table books to every person who agreed to meet with us. They weighed a ton! To stay motivated, I kept thinking this was far better than going to the gym and upon my return I’d be ready for swimsuit season. This is no joke. One year I hired a personal trainer to prepare me for a media trip with Nancy. Her motivation? Great dedication to her job and the Valley. She is a tireless mentor always willing to help and not afraid to reach out to others and do whatever it takes to promote McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley.
Those days when she was the chairman, we visited with writers, journalists, birders with a significant social media following, birding and nature tour operators in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Germany. Nancy strongly believes in interpersonal networking. After our trips, we identified those individuals who would be an asset to our mission. We presented their names and profile for the board to decide who would be invited to visit us in Texas.
Once guests arrive, it is our birds who show captivating our guests. With the support of all the members, our guests are given a royal Texas welcome. Because of this effort, we have developed a significant network of ambassadors all over northern Europe. Always grateful for our hospitality, they’ve become a great resource providing valuable information on various issues related to our European marketing strategies. Right now, while writing this tribute, we are hosting British writer, birder, international tour leader Barrie Cooper who will visit all our member destinations across four Texas regions. “I would not be here if it wasn’t for Nancy,” said Barrie last night. “She convinced me that this was the place to be.” This happened four years ago during a STN media trip to Extremadura, Spain.
Through the years, we’ve also developed a great industry network in the United States.
These partnerships and familiarization trips have generated millions of dollars in editorial content related to birdwatching at STN’s member destinations. Stories about us have been published in German, Dutch, Swedish and Chinese. The most prestigious English and American birding magazines have written about us countless times. International tour operators return bringing more visitors and impacting the Valley’s economy.
In 2011, a nature tourism economic impact report was sponsored by STN and produced by Texas A&M University. The report states that the economic impact in the Valley resulting from nature tourism totaled $690 million and supported over 6,000 jobs. This upcoming fiscal year we plan to sponsor a second report. We have no doubt it will reflect a higher economic impact.
The tourism industry is a complex one and not everyone understands what it really does. The term hospitality is often used to represent it better. Nancy inspired me not to fall in the trap of competition but to lean on each other to succeed. For what is a trip to the Island without shopping in McAllen or Mercedes? Or a trip to the mid-Valley without a visit to the Gladys Porter Zoo or the beach? By working together, we bestow traveling birders the opportunity to visit over 50 nature parks. Very few places have that potential. Everybody in this industry knows Nancy Millar and few can say they have never been involved in some type of tourism promotion project with her.
South Texas Nature’s dedication and hard work caught the attention of other Texas birding hotspots resulting in our new name; Texas Birding.It is due to Nancy’s leadership that today we are an exemplar, statewide tourism marketing organization.
Nancy was behind the organizing of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival 25 years ago. This happened when Nancy was working for the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce. Today, this festival is considered a pioneering event and among the top birding festivals in the United States thanks to its past and current leadership.
In addition to the birding festival and Texas Birding, Nancy was instrumental in the creation of South Texas Tourism, a co-op targeting retirees and active seniors, and the Rio Grande Valley Film Commission. All of this is in addition to the superb job she has done as vice president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and director of the McAllen CVB. Nancy will say that she could not have accomplished any of these things without the support of others, but I can tell you few of us have her energy and motivation.
Now that she is retiring, I wish her the best in this new chapter of her life and I look forward to longer lunch breaks and coffee time. There is no doubt in my mind that she will continue to inspire others to work together to reach higher goals. Her friendliness, her passion, her love and dedication to the Valley will be hard to replicate. I just hope the new generation is taking notes.