Every month, thousands of visitors stop by the Durango Welcome Center at the corner of Main Avenue and Eighth Street in downtown Durango, where Visitor Services and Operations Manager Grace Shepard is responsible for providing a quality experience to each one.
Shepard leads a team of 10 women who engage with guests, answer their questions and provide directions. When tourists want to experience life like a local, the group suggests accommodations, community events and restaurant options based on their interests.
“I really like helping the visitor,” Shepard said. “It is so rewarding to share my Colorado with someone. People want to experience your place like they actually live here.”
Shepard was born and raised on the Western Slope, so she knows the region well. Her background and hospitality experience as a hotelier help her grow the number of people who visit the Durango Welcome Center each year.
“I’ve been in hospitality most of my adult career,” she said. “I got into tourism in 2008. Carrie Whitley [now chairwoman of Durango Area Tourism Ogranization’s board of directors] hired me, and I ran the little kiosk that is next to the coffee company for two summers. I did what we call the Durango Tango,” —having numerous side hustles in addition to having a primary job.
In 2013, Shepard joined the Durango Welcome Center under then-Executive Director Bob Kunkel. She instantly loved sharing her favorite off-road adventures or hiking trails with visitors. But one of her biggest challenges was and continues to be teaching tourists to “Leave No Trace.”
“We try to be true stewards and ambassadors of our area,” she said. “We try to educate in a friendly way. We are a great playground, but don’t leave the playground a mess.”
Shepard also works with groups visiting for large gatherings like conferences, events, reunions and weddings. When she is not assisting and educating visitors, she is handling the center’s operations. Shepard maintains the building and the parking lot nearby, and orders office supplies for the other businesses in the building.
Nora Stafford, a retired teacher who works with Shepard, said the work Shepard puts into the center makes locals and tourists feel comfortable.
“Grace has an eye for design, and is not afraid to get her hands dirty, climb a ladder or get the drill out,” Stafford said. “Grace genuinely cares about the clients that advertise at the Welcome Center. She takes the time to establish relationships and come up with unique designs that promote their businesses.”
Shepard said those relationships with business owners are important to the success of tourism in Durango. In 2017, she took over advertising in the center to better showcase the variety of local attractions.
“We have all the outdoor adventure, but then the arts and culture is amazing,” she said. “And the other is culinary. I have a lot of one-on-one relationships with business owners on Main Street. A lot of our industry partners will invite us out, so that we can experience their food or product so that we can help visitors make informed decisions.”
She spends the day on her feet, both in her building and walking along Main Avenue to chat with business owners. In her free time, Shepard participates in the Business Improvement District’s ambassador program.
She’s inspired by European travel writer Rick Steves, as well as by stories from potential visitors and satisfied guests.
“I just want to be the best I can be in this industry and know that I have helped so many people,” Shepard said. “I get emails and little notes, but it’s what I do. You give and you get back a lot.”l