FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
South Sioux City, Neb. (October 27, 2022) - Nebraska tourism industry members honored the hard work and dedication of their peers at the Celebrate Nebraska Awards Banquet on Thursday at Marriott Riverfront in South Sioux City. The event closed out the annual Nebraska Tourism Conference organized by the Nebraska Tourism Commission and the South Sioux City Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.
“Congratulations to all of our 2022 award winners,” said John Ricks, Nebraska Tourism Commission executive director. “Each year we have the honor of looking through nominations from events and attractions that work hard to make Nebraska a great place to visit. There are so many outstanding and creative projects happening across Nebraska, and we love to recognize them."
The 2022 Henry Fonda Award, the state’s highest tourism award representing leadership, vision and dedication to the tourism industry, went to John Chapo, President Emeritus of the Lincoln Children's Zoo. Chapo moved to Lincoln more than 35 years ago from South Bend, Indiana to become the Lincoln Children's Zoo's third ever president and CEO, and under his leadership the zoo has undergone many changes and tripled in size. Additions include a $25 million expansion in 2019 that brought in tigers and giraffes, and the overall collection of animals has grown from approximately 140 to 400 animals. He has also helped redirect the zoo's focus to fostering rare and endangered species and participating in national breeding programs.
Chapo not only oversaw the largest expansion in the zoo's history, but he is also involved in many organizations benefitting the city and the state. He is a leadership Lincoln alum, a board member for the Capital Humane Society, Lincoln Municipal Band, Lincoln Center Kiwanis, a past chair for the Lincoln Attractions & Museums Association and has participated on the Mayor's Community Cabinet. He also represents Lincoln and Lancaster County on a state level as a Nebraska Tourism Commissioner and is a founding board member of the Nebraska Museums Association.
The Friend of Tourism Award went to Terri Licking of Thedford. Licking has long been a pillar of Thomas County's tourism, economic development and agriculture. She is a multiple-time president of the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway and helped the route to earn its National Scenic Byway designation in 2021. She is also an original charter member of the Nine Byways in Nebraska and has promoted Nebraska tourism at the National Byway Conference. Her other contributions include being part of the Thomas County Historical Society and the Thedford Art Guild, and she has been a key promoter and supporter of the Nebraska National Forest.
The Visionary Award was given to Marah Sandoz of Taylor. Sandoz is the architect behind the Taylor Villagers, one of the more creative and unique attractions in Nebraska. Since 2003, she has used her artistic skills to fashion plywood cutouts of villagers, representing people scattered throughout the town, with new characters appearing each year. This charming attraction catches the attention of drivers passing by and has driven unprecedented visitor traffic into town, as visitors search to find all of these plywood people. The villagers have also caught the attention of Nebraska and national media, including Atlas Obscura's top destinations. Marah has also been active in the area's economic and tourism development for decades and runs her own businesses in Taylor, including Marah's Treasures.
The Outstanding Event Award for communities with populations up to 9,999 was given to the Seward Nebraska Fourth of July Celebration. Since 1868, the community of Seward, Nebraska has honored and celebrated the anniversary of the United State’s founding with a Fourth of July celebration. The event's 154th year in 2022 continued to show why Seward is nationally recognized as America's Small Town Fourth of July City. Thanks to ongoing improvements, including logistical changes for traffic and portable restrooms as well as using local corporate sponsorships to allow for a larger and more spectacular fireworks show, the celebration was able to once again accommodate more than 50,000 attendees.
The Outstanding Event Award for communities with populations over 10,000 went to the 2022 Kearney Cruise Nite in Kearney. The event celebrated its 35th year with six full days of activities for all ages, many of which saw record attendance. An estimated 35,000 people attended the event with more than 500 vehicles registered for the Saturday Show & Shine. The event regularly brings in direct economic impact for the community while also finding ways to directly give back to the community, including a nursing home and assisted living tour with the vehicles.
The Outstanding Marketing Campaign Award was awarded to Grand Island Tourism's Grand Life Campaign. Grand Island Tourism created a unified campaign under one brand identity to promote each of all of its attractions, including Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair and the annual Sandhill crane migration. The campaign used input from the area's top attractions and produced an effective marketing effort that included digital, print and branded items, including T-shirts, postcards and gift bags distributed for free. Web traffic to visitgrandisland.com from advertising saw an increase of 506 percent from the previous year, with individual attractions receiving large increases in web traffic as well. Stuhr Museum reported an 8 percent bump in visitors over its 10-year historical average despite rising gas prices and inflation.
The Outstanding Tourism Attraction Award went to the Robber's Cave Tours in Lincoln. Robber's Cave has maintained a steady visitor presence for tours seven days per week year-round while extending its reach to visitors from all 50 states and internationally. Not only has the attraction kept its positive reputation and good reviews among tourists, the cave continues to gain wider exposure as it was added to the New York Times' Best-Selling List Atlas Obscura in 2021, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its universal appeal makes it a popular destination for social media influencers, musicians and celebrities, photo shoots for the University of Nebraska volleyball and football teams while also attracting and fascinating locals of all ages and hosting educational field trips.
The Passport Champions Choice Award, chosen by Nebraska Passport participants who made it to all 70 stops in 2022, was awarded to Our Lavender Co. in Big Springs. Our Lavender Co. grows fresh organic lavender on site and sells lavender goods at its shop. Guests enjoyed touring the farm, learning about the growing process and taking home quality lavender products. Travelers also enjoyed talking the the mother-daughter trio owners and hearing the story of the business.
Additionally, the Nebraska Travel Association gave out their Crystal Compass Award to Andy Pollock. Andy is a registered lobbyist with the state legislature and has been working with NETA since 2012. He has spent countless hours in and out of session collaborating with NETA strategizing approaches to legislative bills in the senate and furthering the cause of the tourism industry. Andy is a native of rural Keith County and has a deep appreciation for western Nebraska and spends a considerable amount of time there. The crystal compass award is given in honor of the leadership role that he plays in backing and sometimes blocking legislation for the benefit and protection of the industry.