It’s a simple fact. Most people in Columbus and elsewhere do not get to go to work each day in a building which has roots that predate the American Civil War.
But that’s the case for Hayley Henderson, and she truly loves it. The executive director of the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, naturally, considers the colorful history of the 182,000-square-foot structure overlooking the Chattahoochee River a distinct selling point to those clients she and her staff recruit to the event and meeting facility in downtown Columbus.
Built in 1853, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The city began converting it to a meeting facility in the late 1970s. In October of this year, the publication ConventionSouth, which caters to U.S. event and meeting planners, presented the center with its 2017 Readers Choice Award.
Albeit, the heavily bricked Trade Center — or “Iron Works” as some people refer to it due to its industrial past — has grown physically through the years, including a major addition completed in 2003. The city-owned facility hosts an average of 500 events, meetings and conferences each year. It grossed in the neighborhood of $3 million in 2016 and is on pace this year to reach an overall attendance of nearly 200,000.
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Henderson, 27, who was promoted from assistant director at the Convention and Trade Center to executive director more than two months ago, views every square inch of the historic hall as an opportunity to make a memorable and economic impact on the city and its residents. That’s through smaller local gatherings such as weddings and proms and Rotary Club meetings to larger educational conferences and statewide events like the annual influx of 5,000 Georgia Thespians seeking to network and hone their acting and drama skills.
Robert Nobles, chairman of the Convention and Trade Authority, told the Ledger-Enquirer in October that Henderson was the top candidate for the executive director job, which included a nationwide search and applications from more than 60 prospects.
“Hayley won it for her passion; Haley won it for her creativity,” Nobles said. “Hayley could do the job. She won over every board member, and we are fully supporting her. We believe she can take us to another level. She has the contacts to move the trade center forward, and she’s got wonderful ideas. Plus, she wants to stay here in Columbus.”
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the Columbus native and three-time Miss Georgia contestant recently to talk about her job as leader at the Trade Center and its 25-person staff, as well as her visions and goals for the facility. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. First off, the title of executive director, how does that sound to you?
A. I think the biggest thing is it’s more of a blessing and an opportunity because Columbus, Georgia’s my home. It’s a place I grew up. Looking back, with all of my different careers I’ve had, it’s great to see how with each one I brought some type of talent, some type of skill set that prepared me for the job that I have today. I love the city and love the people that find out how great Columbus, Georgia is. As executive director of the Trade Center, we have this amazing vessel that we can use to bring business to Columbus, not only local but also from out of state, around the state, and let people know that Columbus has a lot to offer.
Q. Tell us about the facility and its capacity?
A. Just to give you an example, last weekend we had 8,000 people in our facility for 11 events. We average about 500 events a year and that’s growing. I want people to realize this. In my previous job, I was in the business where I went to convention centers with a client and I would set up the conferences. But our facility here is so unique. The beauty of what it used to be. The history of what this building used to have (inside it) … We have the ability to produce any type (or size) of an event that a consumer or client may need.
Q. What does it take to get those clients or customers here?
A. One thing I always say: If we can get them to Columbus, get the client to come and experience the city, they’ll fall in love with us. I work very closely with the CVB, Visit Columbus, the Columbus Visitors Bureau, and other local partners so that we can get a client to come for a site visit. They can see that not only do we have a beautiful facility, but also our whole uptown-downtown atmosphere with the restaurants and shops. You have the whitewater rafting and the beautiful river. We have a lot to offer, and everything is within walking distance. Once you’re down here, you’re here. So that is something a lot of clients find a high favoritism with.
We want to keep our repeat business. That’s the business that’s local and we’re so glad we have that. It can be anything from social events, non-profit events, military events that happen every year. But I also want to expand from that and bring these (larger) conferences to Columbus, and that’s going to places (outside of Columbus) and letting them know: Hey, have you heard about Columbus, Georgia? Do you know what we have?
The biggest thing I’ve seen is clients have to take the risk and come try it. They’ve gone to another facility year after year and when you create that relationship and partnership with another facility, to leave and go somewhere new can be a little scary. But clients that come to us are falling in love not only with our facility, but our amazing customer service, and they keep coming back. The cool thing is they’re starting to tell others.
Q. You’re coming into this top position at a pretty good time, with the community adding amenities, particularly downtown and on the river?
A. This is an exciting time for Columbus. Just think, in the past 10 years what’s transformed the downtown area. We’re going to blink and there’s going to be so much more to offer, and we already have a lot to offer. I think Columbus itself, we have that servant leadership mentality that people feel. In my previous job, I traveled all across the nation. I didn’t really value what was so special about Columbus until I saw that other cities don’t have what we have. We have the caring nature, the ability to want to make a difference in somebody else’s life.
Here in Columbus, you feel that with all of the different outreach events that we do. You feel it when you’re walking downtown and in other areas of Columbus, that we are a city that has a lot of heart. And you can’t just create that. That took a lot of leadership foundation. I always look to (the late) Bill Turner as a mentor, seeing what he saw for this city. You’ve got to have vision, and even though the vision’s there, to see it come to life makes life exciting.
Q. Do you recruit clients here for business, or does your staff do it?
A. It varies. I have a lot of contacts and networks. One thing is our website has been completely updated this past year. We have virtual tours, because a lot of times people are not be able to do the travel (for a site visit). But why not create a tour where they can feel like they’re almost there? So the virtual tours help out a lot. And having brochures. People love to see pictures.
We’re also in a world today where social media is a great platform, to be able to showcase and create a story for your facility. So we kind of stepped up our game on that. And then just word of mouth, having these conferences come here and trying figure out: What other organizations are these people part of? I have found that there is a conference for about anything.
Q. This unique facility definitely helps you sell them, it would appear?
A. What is cool about the Trade Center in general … if you’re someone who lives in Columbus and you haven’t really walked through the Trade Center, it’s awesome. Come down and let me give you a tour because even being a citizen here for my whole life, I didn’t (fully comprehend it) until I was down here working and seeing the true beauty of this facility. I want everybody to know about it now.
For outside visitors, when they walk into our building, they’re not just getting some conference room. They’re getting history. They’re getting the wood beams, the exposed bricks. Every room you walk into is different, every single one, because of what our history used to be here. Our slogan here is to make history. Our history made us what we are today. And when people have events here, they’re making history in their lives in our facility.
Q. And that takes some solid staff, I presume?
A. We have a great team here, and to produce the amount of events that we have for the amount of staff we have, to me is remarkable. We have a great vendor for our food, Spectra Ovations, our chef is amazing. Chef Chris (Walters) has been here about two years and the quality of food that he can produce is unreal, and I want people to know about it.
Q. That’s a third-party operation?
A. It’s a third-party vendor, but they’re a part of the Trade Center. When (clients) come to the Trade Center, they have to use our food and beverage. But on top of that, I tell my guys, my operations team, my facilities team: In life, you can wake up, you can go to your job, you can have the same routine every day. That happens a lot. But it’s important to understand why you’re doing it. (Author) Simon Sinek said it best for me: It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. And everyday you can come and set tables and put chairs around them and pick up heavy risers. But when you really think about what you’re setting up for, you’re setting up for weddings, you’re setting up for 50th anniversaries, huge military balls, a conference where people are going to come to be educated in their career area. You can’t mess up on that. You get one shot.
Q. That’s because you’re helping them create more great memories?
A. Exactly. You get one shot, and as scary as that may be, that’s also exciting because you’re not just putting up a table for people. You’re creating a memory for that person that they’re going to remember forever. I have memories from here growing up that I will treasure forever because it was an event that took place at the Trade Center. And that’s what makes this job a little magical.
Q. Do you remember attending your first events here?
A. Yeah. My grandmother and mom, we had the tradition of coming to the Junior League Attic Sale, and we came to that many years here. I had a prom here when I was younger. I’ve come here for special scholarship luncheons when I was in college. … My grandmother’s no longer with us, but I remember some of our best times right here at the Trade Center. And other clients are having that, too.
Q. Are you somewhat of a motivator here with your staff?
A. When you think about what makes an event remarkable or amazing, what makes it something that people are going to remember, that’s when you really think about how can we as a staff go the extra mile. So that’s some of the elements that we’re bringing to the table, and our staff and our clients are starting to take notice. But I don’t really think about it as motivation, even though it may be that, and I want to continue to improve employee morale … I want all employees here to know that they’re valuable, and I think when you have a job that you feel value in what you’re producing, you’re going to enjoy your job better and produce better results.
Q. What does it take to keep this big place in great shape and working smoothly?
A. First, it’s a great team. But everyday my day varies. Operationally, it’s making sure that our team is equipped with all their needs, (For instance, audio-visual) AV needs: Is the equipment working properly, is the sound working properly for the components? On the facilities side, we’re trying to switch to LED lighting in places to conserve energy costs; making sure our boilers are up to date; our HVAC system just got updated. Our escalator system, we’re trying to update that right now. And we’re negotiating contracts with vendors, too, because I found a lot of times you have something that’s been in play year after year after year. But is it with the right vendor that can provide the best resource for more affordable costs?
We also just finished our roofing project; our entire South Hall roof had to be replaced. We’re working on replacing our overhang outside where people can park under … So it’s making sure that you’re doing the proper maintenance checks, the proper inspections quarterly to make sure everything is working efficiently so that you don’t have everything break at once. But I have a great engineer who works here. He was with the Muscogee County School District and retired from them. He ended up coming out of retirement and using a lot of his knowledge and resources to get us completely up to code on everything, which we are.
Q. There’s also the critical food preparation area?
A. We have a huge kitchen. Tonight, we’re producing an event for over 1,000 people. That means 1,000 people are getting fed a plated dinner all at one time. It takes a lot to make sure food quality and all of the equipment in the kitchen is working properly, too. … Our partnership with Spectra Ovations is amazing. Our general manager, Weezy Wingo Motzel, we talk to each other everyday. I think having that communication with every department is going to help any facility moving forward.
Q. Does that mean long hours for you?
A. Oh, yeah. (laughs) Hours, what’s that? My schedule’s all over the place. You know, I’m so passionate and I’ll blink and this day will be over with. I can’t even tell you what my average is, it’s a lot. Like tomorrow, I’ll be here until 1 a.m., but it’s making sure an event’s going to be run properly. I have a great team, but for this type of industry, you base your schedule around what’s in the building. So your hours are different every week.
Q. Is this the busy season for you?
A. Oh, yeah. It’s mostly holiday (business now). For instance, in December our busiest time is going to be Friday and Saturday. Now we do have weekday events taking place, like tonight (Thursday) we have the Columbus High School social. We still have every Tuesday, Kiwanis meets here. Every Wednesday, Rotary meets here. But right now, in this season and December, these are our high-producing events.
Q. You do have some unique events throughout the year?
A. There’s the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum. To be able to produce an event like that in our home, in our Trade Center, is incredible. Just think of all the guest speakers we’ve had walk through our back hallway, from the Bush family to Condoleezza Rice, and this past year Octavia Spencer. They got to experience a taste of Columbus.
And we have our signature events each year. We just did the second Breakfast with Santa, which all proceeds go to Children’s Miracle Network and the local hospitals. We’re also bringing back another great event in April, the Southern Living Junkin’ Show, with antiques, vintage and handmade items. And we’re working on a future outdoors show.
Q. Think you could ever get the Antiques Road Show?
A. I would love that so much ... My whole plan and vision I have is: You name it, I want to bring it here. My goal is to bring things to Columbus that we haven’t seen. Even on the conference side, we’re a huge town that can bring some great financial conferences to Columbus considering all of the corporations that we have here. … I want to reach out to what we call career technical student organizations and get them to come here, like FBLA, SkillsUSA, HOSA and DECA. These are huge events that if we bring them here, it can have a major economic impact for our city.
Q. Are there any areas in the business holding you back?
A. Hotel space … I understand there’s that risk: (Developers think) We build these hotels and the rooms will be empty. My thing is, bring the hotels and I’ll fill the rooms. There are many conferences that I have to turn down that would be a great economic impact for our city, but we don’t have enough hotel space … That’s not a negative to our city. I think the Columbus 2025 plan is looking at those areas of growth and that will be great for our city. If we have more hotels in this downtown-uptown area, I’ll fill them.
Q. So lack of more quality hotel space is your major challenge?
A. That in itself is a challenge because of what we just talked about. If I have a site visit …
Q. Let me guess ... you have to say no to folks because of not enough hotel rooms?
A. I do, and I want them to experience Columbus. If they come and have a site visit in Columbus, they fall in love with our town, and then they need 400 rooms. But that’s out of my wheelhouse at that point. They’ll even say, we would love to be here, but we’ve got to have the hotel space, which makes sense, right? So, to me, that is probably the biggest challenge that I face right now because I want to get business here. Instead of completely doing our repeat business, the next area of growth is these bigger conferences because we have the facility to support it. We have the team here to support it. We have the great food that they would need. I just need beds for them to sleep in.
Q. Finally, Hayley, is there a proverbial five-year or 10-year plan for you and your career?
A. This is my forever plan. I am so happy with where I’m at and, again, it goes back to my passion and what I want to see this place become. This is home and I’m glad it’s going to be home forever.
Q. Somebody just might try to recruit you off to somewhere else.
A. (Laughs) I know it’s a bold statement (about being at the Trade Center forever), but I’m a Christian believer and I know that God wants me here, and my purpose is here. With that being said, if I know that my calling is supposed to be here at the Trade Center and I can say that with complete peace, that’s exciting because He has an even bigger plan than I can imagine.
Q. And you’re simply enjoying things right now?
A. I am, I am. Like I said, yeah, there are challenges. But every day you’re going to have challenges. It goes back to a book I read in college: You’ve got to know how to challenge the process. So not to look at it as a failure, but to say how can we take that challenge and grow it to something that we didn’t think could happen.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2008 graduate of Harris County High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and business administration from Columbus State University in 2012; earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership and human resource management from CSU in 2015
Previous jobs: TRI Leadership Resources, director of event services and program manager, 2008 to 2016; Chick-fil-A marketing director for Bradley Park Drive and Macon Road locations, 2010 to 2016; Columbus State University non-profit civic and engagement coordinator, 2013 to 2014; March of Dimes national vice president for the National Youth Council, 2008 to 2012
Family: Newly engaged to Rusty Tillery, a manager in strategic risk at Synovus Financial Corp.; her parents are Darlene and Danny Henderson. A couple of interesting tidbits — her father’s family worked in various jobs in the textile mills when it was a prominent industry in Columbus. And her mother’s father, Curt Drady, opened drive-in theaters in Columbus, and also was an executive producer for the 1976 film shot in Columbus called, “Kiss of the Tarantula”
Leisure time: When possible, she and her fiancé love to travel. Their most recent trip was to San Francisco, which included seeing the Golden Gate Bridge
Of note: She loves participating in nonprofit events around the community, and is currently this year’s Muscogee County March of Dimes Chair; she also overcame a severe speech impediment when she was younger. She went on to compete for the title of Miss Georgia three times as Miss Columbus State University (2011), Miss Troup County (2013) and Miss Columbus 2014); she has spoken in front of crowds as large as 20,000 people