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Life is Like A Day at an Amusement Park

OTA Director Delivers 2017 Commencement Address at Terra State Community College

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The following is the commencement speech delivered by Melinda Huntley, Ohio Travel Association Executive Director, at the 48th commencement ceremony of Terra State Community College in Fremont on May 5, 2017. In recognition of her address, Terra State Community College is awarding a $1,000 Melinda Huntley Honorary Scholarship to a student studying an Associate of Arts degree with a hospitality management pathway during the 2017-2018 academic year.  

Congratulations graduates, family members, faculty and guests. I am honored and humbled to have been asked to share in your celebration tonight.

I’m also really quite terrified. For months, I struggled to think of a message to inspire you, entertain you, or shoot, just keep you awake for the next 12 minutes. I even resorted to reaching out to my Facebook friends for their best advice to new graduates. It was a dangerous tactic, I admit. Although I could have used that entire social media thread to deliver my speech tonight, there’s a good chance I would never be invited to speak again. Anywhere. Ever. 

That being said, I do have to share one post. This wisdom came from my friend Paige, born in Louisiana. Her advice to you is:

“My momma always told me to keep my hair brushed, always wear lipstick and never, ever drink beer from a bottle.”

Basically this translates into be prepared. Always present your best face, and keep it classy.

This is great advice, but I can’t honestly say I’ve always live by her momma’s rules.  

So instead, I’ve decided to talk to you from my heart and from a place that kindled my passion for the travel industry. It’s a career path that’s given me more than 30 years of headaches, heartaches, rewards, excitement and personal fulfillment beyond any dream I may have had when I was seated where you are today. 

So buckle up. Keep your arms and legs inside your seat at all times, for you are about to embark on the ride … OF YOUR LIFE.

Before you flip that tassel and take off from the station where you’ve prepared for this ride, I’d like to share some life lessons I’ve learned from a place not too far from here.

For what is life, if not like a day at an amusement park?

In less than an hour, you’ll be at the gate, ticket in hand. You’ve meticulously planned the route to get you in line for the Millennium Force before anyone else. Suddenly you’re through the gate and sprinting along the midway. Be honest, we’ve all done this. You get to the queue and – boom – there are hundreds of people already in line.

So you wait. You spend time with your friends and family. You talk. You joke. You laugh. And after the ride is over, you’re ready to get back in line again.

What will you remember most about that ride? Let me tell you. Twenty years from now, you won’t remember the exhilarating first drop. It’ll be memories of those you were with that you will most treasure.

So as you go through this wild and crazy ride we call life, take care of those you love and others you meet along the way.  

Ohio recently did in-depth research to determine why people travel. The study found that we make decisions with both our head and our heart; that it’s the anticipation of joy, excitement, love, and other emotions that are at the root of our decisions to plan a trip. We travel to strengthen our relationships, to stoke our inner fire or to gain a sense of personal accomplishment.

For, experiences are when we most feel. Experiences on the job also matter.

I started my professional career in the travel industry doing marketing for Cedar Point. During late fall weekends – when most of our seasonal employees had gone back to school – we often got called out into the park to help with operations.

Now, some tasks were definitely better than others, and I quickly learned where my skill set – or lack thereof - either helped or hindered the park. For example, one day – mind you, one day only – I was put into the parking lot to direct traffic. I had a great time, but created several near mishaps in the process. So they sent me to the front gate to take tickets. I talked way too much, and the backup at my turnstile soon doubled that of anyone else’s.

Finally, they directed me to a food cart, which is where I excelled! It was impossible for me to damage vehicles – not even a stroller, and I could talk to people while they were waiting for their food. I also learned what customer service looks like on the front line, how to handle challenges on the spot, and what our guests were anticipating or experiencing during their visit. These days helped me do a better job marketing the park. The memory of those days also continuously remind me why I do what I do.

Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet with hospitality employees throughout the state. Those who advance quickly share a common trait – they look at each and every job as an opportunity to build their personal brands and skills.

Experience matters. Every experience. It’s whether or not you recognize it and leverage it that determines your success.

My fellow food cart employees? How many of them recognized that this was kind of like running your own business? You can learn not only customer service skills, but how to manage people, cash control, and inventory – kind of like an MBA on wheels – all by changing your attitude, asking questions and being open to any experience that comes your way.

Building your personal brand and developing your marketable skills is a lifelong process. Your first job is not likely to be your last. So make each job, each experience, count.

Your life path won’t be predictable – and isn’t that really a good thing? Life would certainly be boring if we knew exactly what was around each bend. Imagine visiting an amusement park where the midways were all square grids. Half the fun of riding a roller coaster are the unexpected twists and turns. Some seem to take us farther away from our goals, while others hurtle us toward the finish line. 

I’ve found that the greatest ideas and most rewarding achievements are born when there is tension, when there are two or more sides to an issue.  That’s when we get most creative. Let’s take a look at the swing ride; the tension on the cables balances out the centrifugal force and gravity. Without this tension, our seats won’t be stable. The ride needs tension. 

As you go through life, you’ll frequently run across situations where people will convince you to negotiate or bargain between only two sides of an issue – yes or no, this way or that way? The reality is, life is seldom this simple. Parker Palmer in “The Courage to Teach” says “truth is not determined by democratic means.” In our society and often in our workplaces, we agree with consensus – the majority wins. Sometimes better ideas, truths or options lay silent in the non-consensus weeds. Palmer suggests, that had Galileo listened only to consensus, the sun might still be circling the earth. 

His beliefs were different from the crowd. Yet, they were the truth.

So stand up for what you believe to be true. Through these conflicts and tensions, new ideas – often groundbreaking ones – are born.

Speaking of choices, think about the last time you rode a carousel.  If you were to ride today, which horse would you choose?

The wild-eyed, highly decorated prancer on the outside row? The mild-looking horse tucked in the middle? Or would you choose the non-moving chariot with lots of leg room?

Now, before you decide. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The outer row of carousel animals were typically carved ornately only on one side – the side facing outward. The other side, the inner-facing side of these animals are usually very plain. Why? Because back then, carousel owners were paid by the ride. They wanted to lure people to climb aboard, but they also had a budget, so they spent more time and money carving the side facing the crowds. As gorgeous as some of these animal carvings are, few go up and down. Only those in the inside rows moved.

Throughout life, you will have to make choices. Some of your options are quite comfortable. Like the chariot, they’re not going to make you motion sick or change your life much.

Some of the options may try to lure you in with their fancy trappings. But if you look on the other side, you’ll find the promises aren’t deep. And you may end up switching horses midway through the ride.

Other choices may be lurking behind those that appear the most exciting. They may not be as brightly colored or large, but they will give you the most exciting ride.

Consider your choices carefully, then choose adventure.

Appreciate those who are on this journey with you. They become life-long friends and mentors.

View each experience as a chance to grow. The more you know, or the more things you can do, the more doors will open for you.

Look at obstacles as a way to innovate. You don’t learn anything by taking the easy way.

Stand up for the truth. Boy, this one is really hard. But you will sleep better.

Choose adventure. It’s way more fun.

Life is thrilling. Seek to live fully, by taking the time to smell the elephant ears, watch the fireworks and listen to the calliope music.

And, as my Facebook friend Todd so eloquently says, “For crying out loud, travel.

Thank you, God Bless, and congratulations graduates!