At just 30 years old, UCF graduate Katie Worthington will be the new chief executive of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, bringing a fresh perspective to a budding area of Central Florida. Like most success stories, Worthington’s was neither predictable nor planned, but for her, it started at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
After graduating from Rosen College in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, Worthington left her job working at the front desk of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, a hotel she helped open, and relocated to Polk County. After brief stints in financial services working for State Farm Insurance and SunTrust Bank, she spent several years as the director of reception, public relations and customer service for a local medical clinic.
In 2011, she joined Clark/Nikdel/Powell , an integrated marketing strategy firm located in Winter Haven, where she currently serves as media and account director for clients such as Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, the Central Florida Development Council, Enterprise Florida and Fantasy of Flight. She also volunteers for various community organizations, including the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, founded the Winter Haven Young Professionals Group, organized the first Polk Emerging Leaders awards ceremony and received the 2013 Leadership Winter Haven Distinguished Alumnus Award.
“Because I’m a tourism nerd, I tried to get involved in anything I could do volunteer-wise within my clients’ business areas, the Chamber of Commerce and economic development,” Worthington said. “Over about six or seven years, I did of a lot of volunteering and became very familiar with the Chamber and all of Polk County.”
As her local reputation and professional brand grew, people started to take notice of Worthington’s talents and passion. When current Chief Executive Bob Gernert decided to retire after a 17-year career that saw CSX and Legoland Florida arrive in Winter Haven, she was encouraged to apply. Following a national search, Worthington was named to lead the Chamber on January 17, 2014 and will officially assume the role on March 1.
Worthington credits her education and experience at Rosen College for making her well-rounded in various aspects of business, including customer service, operations, marketing and public relations, a foundation that translates across industries. She also benefited from learning about the economic impact of tourism and how it can transform communities.
“I think having that holistic view of the economic impact of tourism is probably what’s prepared me most,” she said. “I think of restaurant management and even thought I never wanted to own a restaurant, knowing the challenges of running one makes me much more prepared since many of the Chamber members are small business, family-owned restaurants. I certainly have an appreciation for them since I had to come up with a business plan for a restaurant, do a financial analysis and learn about operations in class.”
Worthington hopes to guide Winter Haven through what she calls a pivotal point in the city’s history as community leaders work to formulate a strategic plan for the future. She points to Winter Haven’s strengths as both a tourism and residential destination with its traditions, natural assets and potential to attract young professionals to live and work.
As she reflects on the journey to her new leadership post, she advises students to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible whether it’s through volunteering, shadowing professionals, doing internships or getting involved in student organizations. Also, never underestimate the value of hospitality education to various industries.
“A hospitality management degree is, in my opinion, great because it teaches you the business element as well as customer service, public relations and marketing,” she said. “There’s an emphasis on customer service, which in reality, is the real reason businesses succeed, no matter what industry you’re in.”