With the work Robyn Culbertson has been doing for the past 24 years in promoting the eclectic city of Cambridge as a global tourist destination, most people would be surprised to find out her roots began in the South.
How exactly she became the executive director of Cambridge’s Office for Tourism in 1999 and fell in love with the job was mostly unplanned, but her story might show us that taking risks, even for things we feel a little fear for, can bring incredible outcomes.
Culbertson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and spent some time living in Mississippi and North Carolina. She made her way to Massachusetts for her ex-husband’s job. Although he was a bit “reluctant,” Culbertson saw it as a new adventure.
“This was in October, and how could you not fall in love with New England in October?” says Culbertson.
In 1995, although her love for her new home was just starting, her marriage was ending. Culbertson felt it was time to make a career transition. She had spent four years working in the hotel industry when she heard about an assistant director position in Cambridge’s Office for Tourism.
“I had only visited Cambridge once before I started working here,” she shares. “I was a bit afraid of it at first, with all the street performers, students, everything happening. It was a little overwhelming.”
Despite feeling like a fish out of water, Culbertson said she thought it would be a good experience. Ultimately she didn’t expect to get the job and was pleasantly surprised when in fact, she did.
But then it was time to dive deep into the unknown — spending her days in a place that used to intimidate her, learning the history and its different neighborhoods and eateries.
“When I look back, I go, ‘What was I thinking?’” she says. As second in command to an office that hadn’t existed before 1995, there was plenty of room for learning and experimentation.
The team first started with developing maps and visitor guides to Cambridge of which there were none. Then there was the work of breaking down barriers and perceptions of what people thought of Cambridge.
“When I go to trade shows, some people think that Cambridge is 100 miles outside of the city, when it’s really so close to Boston,” says Culbertson.
Her work has also included creating meaningful partnerships with nearby institutions and spearheading informative and creative multimedia campaigns about Cambridge and its distinct attractions and neighborhoods.
“We’ve got Harvard and MIT, which are great anchors and that pulls people in,” says Culbertson. “But, then, people are surprised to learn about other things, like Central Square, which has a strong artist community and public murals. And the Kendall Square area has just boomed with innovation and biotech.”
When asked whether not being a Cambridge native gave her an edge and unique perspective in her job, Culbertson says, “It still does. Every day I come in, and I’m like a tourist.”
“It was both an advantage and disadvantage,” she says about first starting the job as a recent Massachusetts transplant. “I had a lot to catch up on. I also saw the challenges that natives wouldn’t have noticed, like having better signage and navigation.”
“Some people would stand on Harvard Square and ask where Harvard Square is,” she adds.
Culbertson took over the reins as executive director of Cambridge’s Office for Tourism just four years into her job, when her predecessor stepped down.
Over the last two decades, she has transformed the tourism office into a fully working machine with staff members and volunteers. She helps usher in the millions of visitors to Cambridge each year.
In retrospect, Culbertson finds her career trajectory very unexpected. “I came up here for my ex-husband’s career. When we split, I was going to stay for just a year,” she says.
She likes the serenity of Newburyport where she currently lives. But, spending her days in Cambridge, she has found it to be “the most international, energetic, all-encompassing city I’ve ever been to.”
“I never lived down south again,” says Culbertson. “Living here changed me — I think for the better.”
Culbertson says working and living in Massachusetts has expanded her way of thinking. She has seen firsthand how bringing cultures together improves society. “We should all be working and learning from each other,” she says.
Of course, she says, “I’m judging this from living in the South 30 years ago. It has become more multicultural there, too.”
Her relatives from Alabama and North Carolina visit her often and she regularly makes trips back herself. “I will probably go back south one day. It’s part of who I am,” she admits. “I would be so much less of the person if I hadn’t lived in New England, too.”