Wish You Were Here
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: Sep[tember/Octoner issue
A CONVERSATION WITH LESLIE WHITLOW GRAVES



Leslie Whitlow Graves is the new Executive Director of Experience Prince George’s, the Prince George’s County, Maryland (PGC) conference and visitor’s bureau. “As the executive director, I’m responsible for developing the overall strategy for selling and marketing the county,” says Graves. “It’s my job to coordinate and utilize the key resources and the allies in the government, private sector, and the business sector, and to leverage resources and opportunities to push tourism further in the county,”

Traditionally a bedroom community, whose residents primarily commute to work in the Washington DC area, hospitality and tourism in PGC has recently grown into a $620 million industry. “The wonderful thing that has happened over the last 15 years or so,” says Graves, “is the county has, in and of itself, started to develop its own assets so people can come over here.”

One of those assets is the National Harbor, a 300-acre multiuse waterfront development along the Potomac River. “It will be 10 years old in the next year and it has continued to grow,” Graves reports. “In the last three years, we have most recently had the MGM Hotel & Casino set up shop over there. Last month [July] it grossed about 40% of the hotel/casino revenue for the entire state.”

Another National Harbor asset, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, has the largest number of hotel rooms in the county. It contains 95 event rooms, 537,430 sq. ft. of meeting space, seven restaurants, and a 20,000-sq. ft. spa, and features an 18-story glass atrium with views of the Potomac River.

             “Topgolf also set up shop over there about two months ago,” Graves adds. The 65,000-sq. ft. Topgolf facility offers a special blend of technology, entertainment, and food and beverage.

“We also have College Park, where the University of Maryland is. We have the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and College Park Aviation Museum over there. We also have a new entertainment/supper club called MilkBoy,” she says.

Just south of College Park is the innovative Hyattsville Gateway Arts District, an arts-based economic development initiative. The area supports arts, business, and residential development.

“The county has never seen itself as a tourist destination, never really took hold of that economic development opportunity,” Graves remarks. “But when we had County Executive Angela Alsobrooks come in, it was an opportunity she recognized that she could make a priority.”

This bedroom community’s homeowners carry a heavy financial burden, because there is little commercial tax base. Both Graves and Alsobrooks, who have a long-standing work relationship, came to recognize that by the efficient use of the county’s assets to bring in tourism dollars, they could reduce the financial burden on county  residents.

“I worked for her for eight years, I know what her expectations are. I know what it means when she says ‘get things done’ and that’s what we’re going to do,” says Graves. “We’re going to see the whole county rise, that’s the goal.”

Since taking on the executive director role in June 2019, Graves has been actively building Experience Prince George’s as an organization. “We are trying to establish relevancy for this organization,” she says. “We really are at a place of rebirth, reenergizing, reestablishment and looking to develop greater relevancy.”

She is currently involved in meeting with people around the county to help build the membership that is the life’s blood of any tourism bureau. The new marketing plan was recently unveiled at the first member meeting..

Graves’ background illustrates a commitment to tourism development, and the experience and determination to back it up. At the age of 28, she moved from her native Sacramento, CA to Washington, DC in a pickup truck.  Originally appointed by the governor of California, she worked for Americorps at the national level managing organizational operations in 18 governors’ offices around the country.

But she liked engaging people and working at the grass roots level, and went to work for DC Mayor Anthony Williams’ office, and “got into the local space.” These different experiences allowed her to build different skill sets and networks.

From 2003 to 2009 she served as special assistant to the President/CEO of Destination DC. There, this mother of two translated her background in politics to tourism. By working hand-in hand with government leadership, she was instrumental in the rebranding efforts that made the organization the powerhouse it is today.

“I feel like we are about to put Prince George’s County on the map in a way no one has thought about before. I feel like that’s my job, that’s really what my mission is, to get people to know not just one part of the county. There are lots of things you can do here,” she says with a laugh, “and we’re cheaper than DC.”

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