While some people think being an Azalea Belle is all about waving and sitting pretty, Susan Travis knows it’s a lot of work.
“It’s definitely not an easy job,” she said, adding that they sometimes have to stand in hot or cold conditions.
Azalea Belles, clad in elaborate period dresses, stand at several homes along the Azalea Trail each year to greet visitors, answer questions and pose for pictures. They have been gracing the Azalea Trails for 50 years.
“People love them,” Ms. Travis said. “They add so much character and charm to the Azalea Trail. … They are ambassadors for Tyler.”
Ms. Travis, assistant vice president, tourism/servicing for the Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been in charge of the high school freshman and sophomore girls — from interviewing and selecting them to overseeing their duties — for 10 years.
This year, there were 52 high school freshman and sophomore girls who applied, 47 underwent the interview process and 33 were chosen to be Azalea Belles.
Holli Conley, marketing/communications manager for the bureau, and Patricia Heaton, curator for the Goodman-LeGrande Museum, helped her interview and select the girls.
Ms. Travis, 55, said she loves working with the Azalea Belles.
“Most of them … they’re going to be ambassadors for the rest of their life,” she said. As they go out into the world, they will tell people about the city of Tyler. “It’s my goal to instill that in them.”
She said being an Azalea Belle can help girls come out of their shell.
Some girls want to be a Belle because they love dressing up in the costumes. Others want to do something to give back to their community. And other girls have dreamed about being a Belle since they were children.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true” for them, she said.
They also get community service hours needed for most college applications.
Some of the girls simply enjoy talking to people.
The girls take turns serving out shifts on Saturdays and Sundays during the trail, as well as the Historic Tyler on Tour weekend. All of the Belles are part of the city’s kick-off event at 10 a.m. Friday at Guy and Joan Pyron’s house, at 212 W. Dobbs.
“It’s rewarding to me to see these girls grow up,” Ms. Travis said.
She said she sometimes runs into the girls years later or their younger sisters also become Belles. Hearing them tell her what a great experience being a Belle was is the most rewarding thing for her.
Ms. Travis sees her role as serving as a mentor to them.
“I love children,” she said. “To me, it’s setting a good example for them.”
Ms. Travis has two sets of identical twins — 32-year-old girls and 28-year-old sons.
She hopes some of the Azalea Belles will go on to work in the tourism industry.
Ms. Travis has done a lot of things in her life, including working in a bank, as well as doing accounting, payroll and secretarial work.
“By far this is my favorite job I’ve ever had,” she said, adding that she wishes she would have found the tourism industry sooner.
Ms. Travis was born in Colorado. The daughter of a preacher, she moved around a lot as a child, living in New Mexico, Texas and Tennessee. She moved to Tyler for the first time in 1978 and her first job here was in classifieds at the Tyler Morning Telegraph. She also worked in the framing shop of a glass company and in the loans department for Southside Bank
In 1987, she moved to Cedar Hill, near Dallas, then back to Tennessee and Mississippi before returning to Tyler in 2003. She said she wanted to be closer to her mother in Liberty City after her father died, and all of her family lives in East Texas.
After moving back to Tyler, she worked as a clerk in the information office at the Rose Garden Center. That job led her to work at the Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau, and she was promoted to her current role in 2010.
The Azalea Trail is the busiest time of year for Ms. Travis.
She also travels to promote Tyler to different groups for bus tours here, as well as to leisure travelers. She oversees all print collateral for the bureau, including all of the activity guides and brochures that go out to 12 to 14 visitor information centers, as well as at Chamber of Commerce organizations in cities across the state.
She also answers a lot of questions from tourists — from attractions and history to where to eat. She oversees the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Committee and is the facilitator at the Tyler Lodging Association meetings. Along with volunteers, she works at the Chamber offices on the weekends during the Azalea Trail and greets visitors at the Texas Rose Festival.
She is also a member of Leadership Tyler.
“Getting to talk to people” is her favorite part of her job, Ms. Travis said. “I’m very much a people person. … I love making people feel welcome.”
She said she might be one of the first faces visitors see and she wants to make a good impression, putting her best foot forward so people get a good experience while they’re in Tyler.
Ms. Travis said she’d like to work for Tyler for as long as she can.
“I’m very blessed,” she said. “I cannot say that enough.”