Interview: Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island

Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island at the Long Island Tourism Awards December 2018. Photo Courtesy of Discover Long Island.

“Our very own Long Island Superwoman,” is how News 12 reporter and anchor Elisa DiStefano described Kristen Jarnagin not too long ago. She has a point. Formerly known as the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau & Sports Commission, Jarnagin’s overhaul and rebranding of the agency poised it to meet the challenges the Long Island tourist industry faced in the 21st century. Under her leadership, what once were little more than fragmented regional visitor centers now have cohesive leadership to rally around. This is her story.

Fire Island News (FIN): How and when did you first get involved in the tourism industry?

Kristen Jarnagin (KJ): So I had graduated from Arizona State University with a degree with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and my first job was in public relations. I worked for a PR agency right out of college and we had a couple of tourism clients that I would represent. And I had no idea when I graduated from college that tourism was an industry or career or an option or that I would ever go into it, but I kind of fell into it through my PR agency and I would work with the clients and I was connecting them with the Arizona Office of Tourism to try and make sure they were getting involved. One day the Arizona Office of Tourism offered me a position internally and it took off from there.

FIN: When did you start working at Discover Long Island?

KJ: I was in the tourism industry in Arizona for about 20 years in different positions and I had worked my way up from the State Tourism Office to resorts to the Trade Association and, most recently, I was the lobbyist for Arizona tourism, really advocating on the value of the industry. After 20 years I was looking for a change. There was a national search for Long Island for a CEO position – I had never been to Long Island, but on a whim I threw my hat in a ring and sent my resume in, never thinking that anything would happen. It was a long eight-month process, but at the end of it, I was the final candidate. That was November 2015 so three and a half years ago.

FIN: What have a couple of your favorite experiences been on either Long Island or Fire Island?

KJ: The entire experience is really incredible to me because I’m brand new, I’ve never been there. You know, I moved there with my two daughters, who have also never lived out of the state of Arizona, and we spent the last three and a half years discovering Long Island ourselves. We love it. I see it through the eyes of a visitor and someone new, so I get so excited by the slightest things, like every time I cross the Robert Moses Bridge. I get giddy and it’s hard for me not to take a video. I mean, there’s so much beauty surrounding us. One of the first things I did in my new role was I went to Fire Island because I’ve heard it’s one of our iconic destinations and I wanted to understand the difference of all the beaches and the different personalities and I spent the whole weekend taking water taxis all over the place and I was really, even though people told me, I was so stunned by the beauty and the diversity of Fire Island. So, I’m just really thrilled to have such an incredible product.

FIN: It could be seen as a positive being able to look at a destination with fresh eyes, like a visitor.

KJ: I think so, I mean, I hope so. The one thing that I think I bring to Long Island is really, I come from a state perspective and I’m used to promoting states, which are bigger, broader destinations, and I think Long Island is so different from end-to-end and from shore-to-shore, that I think in the past it had really been marketed or positioned in kind of a fractured kind of way. “I don’t know which county I’m in.” “I don’t care if it’s this county or that county.” And visitors don’t know that either. I think visitors see it as one opportunity and that’s the benefit.

FIN: Do you have any particular favorite places on FI that you’ve promoted?

KJ: I love that — I get that question a lot and there’s still so much that I haven’t even seen. So I don’t have a favorite. Although, I will say that my staff always refers to the Robert Moses Bridge as ‘it’s your favorite bridge.’ Every time I see a picture they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s your favorite bridge.’ And it is true. I think it’s so beautiful and, again, it’s something that we take for granted, coming from a desert destination, having water all around us is — I don’t take it for granted.

FIN: Are there any connections or similarities you’ve noticed from working in Arizona to here?

KJ: That’s interesting. It’s incredibly different. I think that a couple of strengths I bring from my past experience are seeing it from a bigger, broader perspective and an outsider’s perspective and also my background in lobbying has been really helpful in navigating some of the political waters. And the other thing that is interesting was starting to finally bring to Long Island the connection of tourism to economic development, which we did very well in Arizona and we worked very closely with economic development and utilizing tourism to drive business attraction and it’s great to bring that experience to Long Island and we’re starting now to really work closely with the different IDAs (Industrial Development Associations) to give them our resources to promote the incredible quality of life on Long Island as part of the reason why business should also be there.

FIN: What are some of your goals for that?

KJ: When we rebranded to Discover Long Island we did that for a specific reason, hoping to utilize economic development more because most other destinations have gone “to visit.” You know, they rebranded and they’re like “come visit,” like I’m here in Anaheim so “Visit Anaheim” “Visit Phoenix” “Visit Dallas” “Visit Syracuse.” And we didn’t do that for a couple of reasons. We knew that one of our target audiences were Long Islanders. Thirty percent of our business is Long Islanders traveling to other parts of Long Island — and we’re not ever going to ask them to “visit” Long Island obviously. There’s a lot for them to discover. And we also produce beautiful resources — videos, ads, brochures, collateral — and we wanted to give them and have everyone utilize them in the business community. So when we say Discover Long Island we can give that to the LIA [Long Island Association] or the manufacturing consortium or the IDAs and they can utilize all the information. So I really see us saying Discover Long Island to live, work or play.

FIN: If someone were to come up to you right now and say, ‘Hi, I want to visit Long Island.’ What are some go-to locations or businesses you might suggest?

KJ: I get that every day. Long Island is best known for the Hamptons. People have heard of it. But one of my favorite things about Long Island that people don’t know are all of the charming, really unique downtowns from end-to-end, from Long Beach to Farmingdale to Port Jefferson to Huntington and Oyster Bay. We have so many adorable downtowns and I think that really exploring those downtowns is what gives you the heart of what Long Island is all about. Yes, we have incredible waters and beaches and endless attractions, but the downtowns are where you really meet the people, the Long Island locals. And that’s where you really get a taste of who we are.

FIN: Are there any upcoming projects for Discover Long Island in 2019?

KJ: There are a million. We just launched our brand new advertising campaign, “BeLong.” Long Island is where you “BeLong.” And, again, a lot of it sort of comes from my story, you know, not having been there and then calling it my home now and really feeling like it’s a place that I’ve always meant to be and when we bring visitors in all the time, I feel like it’s more than just a visit and we’re trying to convey more of the character and the depth of the destination and the people that make up the destination. It’s also community pride building. Sometimes, Long Islanders are the first ones to complain about where we live and it’s important to remember that it’s where I belong, it’s where you belong, and making sure people really don’t take for granted what’s in our backyard. It’s a brand new campaign we just launched. And we’re going into Philadelphia for the very first time in a couple weeks. Introducing Long Island to Philadelphia, we’ve never marketed there before, and it’s such an important demographic for us. World Pride is coming this June to New York City and that’s going to be an incredible endeavor for us. I’ve just spent all weekend focusing on the LGBTQ market. We are a perfect destination for that with, again, Fire Island being a core component of that market as well as the Hamptons and all of our downtowns. We are really right to take advantage of that LGBTQ traveler and we’re looking to do more of that. And we’re really even looking in to 2020. One of our big story pitches is the Roaring 20s coming back and the fact that we have “The Great Gatsby” mansions. And we’re really loving that unique component of Long Island, that we were instrumental in how the country was built. The Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts, and the major industries that stemmed from Long Island. That’s a great story for us to tell as well. We have endless things to accomplish.

FIN: So, are there any upcoming plans for Fire Island?

KJ: Fire Island is, again, a big part of our World Pride campaign. We partnered with New York City and Company so it’s called and you’ll see us on their homepage and Fire Island is a big part of our World Pride story. Also, our new campaign “BeLong,” we launched it actually in New York City with a partnership in New York City and Company and the LIRR so we have a couple things going on. You’ll see us on 1,700 digital kiosks and 65 bus shelters in NYC and one of our ads is “Next Stop: Fire Island” because it’s “Next Stop: Hamptons” “Next Stop: Fire Island” “Next Stop: Wine Country,” you know, utilizing the verbiage of taking the train and having a carless experience so that’s a $150,000 campaign that we’re doing in New York City with Fire Island being one of the four anchors. And also, we have PBS coming to Fire Island in July. They’re filming an entire series on how to have a carless vacation and that’s an incredible value and they’re bringing a huge production crew to Fire Island next month to feature how people can experience the destination. We’re really looking to work with Fire Island, we’re excited about the opportunity there and making sure that we’re looking at how to extend the seasons from beginning to end and again raise the profile on an international level. As crowded and as busy as it is in the summer from people from Manhattan, it’s still so much of an unknown treasure globally, that I’m really excited to continue to share that story.

FIN: Where do you see yourself in the coming years with Discover Long Island?

KJ: I’m really happy there. As you can hear, we have so much work to do. There’s so much to be done. It’s still, I feel, a blank canvass and I just look to continue to grow within the destination and I would love to continue to grow the industry so we can compete on a global stage, and making sure that we’re a resource to the different destinations on Long Island and the Long Island residents because really that’s what tourism is all about. We generate about $724 million annually in tax revenues and I just want to continue to benefit the residents of Long Island through our efforts. I see myself there for a while. My kids are going to school and they love it and we’re happy here so I just hope we continue to grow.