Visit Estes Park CEO Kara Franker has been featured as a travel expert for Coastal Living, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Travel Channel, Travelocity, Orbitz, HGTV, Huffington Post and more. A licensed attorney, Franker earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Courtesy Kara Franker

New Estes tourism exec draws on more than travel experiences

ESTES PARK — She’s been a journalist, a prosecuting attorney, a business owner, a marketing manager in glitzy South Florida, a wife and mother, and even a National Football League cheerleader.

Kara Franker intends to tap all those skills as the new chief executive at Visit Estes Park, the local marketing district for the Larimer County mountain village at the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

She assumed her new duties May 5, succeeding Eric Lund, who was asked to resign by the VEP board last fall after two years on the job over “personnel” issues that were not officially specified.

“I did read the papers. There was some turmoil,” Franker said. “No matter who you are and what the circumstances are, when you’re a new leader coming into a situation, it’s going to be really challenging. But I’m really excited about getting to know the board and staff. I want to come in and prove to them that, no matter what’s happened in the past, they can trust me and rely on me to be professional.”

Franker comes to Colorado after two years as senior vice president for marketing and communications for Visit Lauderdale, which promoted tourism in Broward County, just north of Miami, with an annual budget of $30 million. In comparison, Visit Estes Park has a staff of eight and an annual budget of just $2.725 million — and the $145,000 annual salary Franker will receive is hardly the industry standard.

“I love the fact that I had the big-city experience, but it’s not about the money,” Franker said. “It’s about putting all of your weight and promotion into one really cool place. It’s an awesome mountain town, and I get to tell people about it, live it, breathe it.”

Besides, the Kansas native has decided that raising her 4-year-old daughter, Lola, in a smaller town is a better option than doing it in a fast-paced metropolis, especially one that comes with oppressive summer heat, fire ants and the occasional hurricane.

“It was a huge transition to go from Kansas to Miami, but we acclimated,” Franker said. “We lived on the 40th floor of the Epic Hotel, but I am a Midwestern girl. I’m the kind of person who would walk into an elevator and say ‘Good morning’ and people would stare at me like I just insulted their mother. Lola’s the same way. She’ll see you on the street and start talking to you.

“There’s a lot of pressure in South Florida, and especially Miami, to look a certain way, act a certain way. I didn’t have that pressure growing up; I just got to be me,” she said. “So I want so badly for Lola to grow up in a community where she can be her friendly, happy self and she doesn’t have to worry so much about what she looks like or sounds like or acts like, and she can just be fun and wild and free. That’s what I imagine for her in a community like Estes Park. The great thing is that we don’t have to go back to Kansas to get that; we get to go to my favorite state, which is Colorado.”

She and her husband, Jeremy, an attorney working for the federal government, “are in our upper 30s. We got to live a really fun, glitzy time period,” Franker said, “but it’s time for a new kind of normal life.”

Franker said she won’t mind being much more visible in a smaller town, either.

“I love the fact that everybody’s going to be in my business, and ask me how things are going,” she said. “It’s so much better than walking down the street in a big city and people could care less.”

A native of Olathe, Kansas, she and Jeremy were high school schoolmates a year apart. She majored in journalism at the University of Kansas and spent some fall Sundays over three seasons as a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs. When Jeremy started law school, the couple moved to St. Louis and married, and she took sales jobs that didn’t seem like the right fit.

“But I was fascinated by all the stuff he was coming back and talking about criminal law,” Franker said. “I was nerding out over it, and thought that if Jeremy can do it, I can do it.”

She studied law at the University of Denver, then took classes at the University of Miami and Florida International University after Jeremy got a job in Miami. Her legal career blossomed in the state’s attorney’s office, where she became a prosecutor specializing in child-trafficking and domestic-violence cases.

In her spare time, Franker contributed hundreds of articles for no pay in a society blog, attending charity galas and writing about them the next day. “It was a great way for a Kansas girl to meet the city,” she said.

Visit Florida spotted her work and hired her to cover an entertainment and luxury beat, traveling around the state to stay at swanky hotels and attend concerts. “That paid job broke me into the world of tourism,” Franker said. She also started her own marketing business, with tourism promotion agencies as her major clients, before landing an executive position at Visit Lauderdale.

What both her courtroom and journalism experiences will bring to her work in Estes Park, she said, is a dedication to transparency.

“A lot of it is just building trust,” she said. “I want to be as honest with everybody about what’s going on. When a newspaper calls and I don’t call them back, it’s going to raise problems, questions. So I answer them honestly. That’s what I expected as a prosecutor working with a defense attorney, and that’s what I have to do in Estes when we’re talking about millions of dollars in tax money because everybody in town is a stakeholder. I have a duty to show that the money is being spent in an accountable way.”

Just as important, she said, is “admitting if we tried a project and it didn’t work. Journalists and lawyers know it’s the cover-up that screws somebody over. So I want to tell people the honest truth, for two reasons: one, because you have a duty, and two, because the cover-up’s worse.”

That same dedication to transparency plays into how she’d deal with disasters, Franker said.

Over the last 45 years, Estes Park has been staggered by many of them: the 1976 Big Thompson flood that killed 143 people, the 1982 Lawn Lake dam break that sent a sea of hip-deep mud down the town’s main street during the height of summer tourist season, the 2013 deluge that cut off all access to the town from the cities below just before a government shutdown closed the national park, and last year’s record wildfire that scorched the park and forced the town’s evacuation.

There will be a next one. How will Visit Estes Park handle it with Franker at the helm?

“From a consumer perspective it’s being really honest about what is happening,” she said. For every tropical storm that came through in Florida, “we would update the website with, ‘Here’s the latest from the National Hurricane Center. This is what you have to be aware of. You need to contact your hotel and see if they have a generator. Here are the hotels that have generators.’

“Because if you pretend there’s not a problem and somebody comes and they’re in harm’s way, that’s a big PR problem. Or, if you aren’t honest about the recovery and they go to a place, say, where a fire was up here in the park, somebody plans their trip and that’s what they experience, you have to be honest and say, ‘We had a fire here, and so things don’t look exactly normal, but we just want you to know so you’re not surprised when you get here,’ so they don’t feel like they got hoodwinked.”

Franker was confronted with Estes Park’s vulnerability on her second day on the job. On May 6, she was invited to attend the monthly meeting of the Estes Valley Resiliency Collaborative, a team of public, private and nonprofit partners that is working to help the town recover from the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though the recovery is in full swing,” she said, the panel’s focus also was on what comes next. “After the fires ran through the mountains this past year, what’s going to happen this year? We could be looking at floods. I was really excited to be part of this committee that invited me so quickly because you have to pre-plan. You can’t just sit and hope and pray and think, oh, nothing’s going to happen to us. We’ve already got to be thinking, what’s the next disaster and how do we pre-plan?

“From a tourism perspective, it’s the communication aspect. We need to communicate with businesses, seeing what support we can provide them to help them get back up and running. We’re not on the ground cleaning up, but we can help in lots of ways” from marketing to working with lodging owners to help workers find housing.

Franker said she intends to spread a sense of fun at Visit Estes Park, even in mundane venues.

“I want people to come to the board meetings and be excited to come to them,” she said. “That sounds a little crazy; who’s excited about coming to any kind of a board meeting? But that’s the level we got to in greater Fort Lauderdale. Nobody would show up in the beginning. But then when they realized I was going to put on a little show and they’re going to see some fun, creativity and ads and get excited, they came.

“That’s like tourism. We’re getting people excited to go on vacation.”

One similarity between Fort Lauderdale and Estes Park is the need to build up tourism during the “shoulder seasons” when visitation drops. For south Florida, it was the hot, humid summers. For Estes Park, it’s the cold, windy winters. In Florida she worked with businesses to provide and promote “LauderDeals” to draw visitors, and is likely to launch similar promotions in Estes.

She’s most excited about learning from the VEP board and the townsfolk.

“They’re going to have so much to teach me,” she said. “I’ll find out what went wrong in the past. I don’t want to make the same mistakes; I want to learn from them.

“And I want them to be excited about coming to work every day. I don’t know if it’s been like that for them. So if I could bring that as a gift with me, I think that would be great for all parties.”