Talking to Karyl Leigh Barnes, whether in person or on the phone, is always a treat. A bastion of knowledge about travel and the media, she speaks swiftly, almost with the anguish of a commuter counting the minutes before her train chugs into the station.
Then again, she is a commuter, riding Metro North between her Westchester home and her work as partner and executive vice president of a respected New York PR firm. When she’s not on the train, chances are she’s on a plane, commuting to one of her many clients.
As a veteran travel journalist who depends upon publicists to provide ideas for articles and broadcasts, I have known Karyl Leigh for years. I respect her knowledge and admire her professionalism, but wonder where she gets so much energy; she could melt the snow on the streets of Manhattan just by standing still for a few seconds.
It doesn’t surprise me when the dark-haired dynamo says she considers travel both a passion and a pain.
She should know; she’s in her 18th year with Development Counselors International, a prestigious New York firm with 60 employees and branches in Denver, Toronto, and Los Angeles.
“The best things about travel are the people, the history, the learning opportunities, and the bonding experiences,” she says, “but the worst is unpacking after a trip.”
Maybe that’s because her bags are loaded with gifts and trinkets for her 30 nieces and nephews — she has four siblings and her husband has five.
Picking out presents for so many might be a nightmare for some, but not for Barnes.
“Since I’m constantly on the road, I always look for cool, cute little gifts that are representative of the destinations I visit,” she says. “When I give them to my nieces and nephews, I always add a little postcard that explains what it is and where I was. So it gives them a little bit of world history lesson.”
On a recent trip to Turkey, Barnes laughs, she bought 20 Evil Eye charms for her nieces. The price was right and the gift was unlike anything she could have bought stateside.
Like his wife, Barnes’ husband — a broadcast technology consultant — is a road warrior, too. “He says there’s a big difference between his business travel and my business travel,” she reveals. “Mine is all fun, going to places and having travel experiences. Being in a kayak one day with a national parks guy or walking around a city with a foodie who knows the local chefs. He’s at a conference in a business hotel, working all day, and doesn’t see anything outside the building. He might get a little jealous sometimes.”
They travel together only occasionally — usually after both have finished their work. When she had a speaking engagement in Turkey followed by a conference in Iceland last year, she went alone but he joined her for a mini-vacation afterward.
Coming home is always fun for Barnes, a Sullivan County native who worked for Rockland County tourism before joining DCI.
“It’s always good to come home to New York,” she says. “I’m a foodie and that makes New York a wonderful place to be. You can find any food you want here. There are places in the world where the traffic isn’t so crazy and it’s easier to get from Point A to Point B. But New York is such a great city with its restaurants, museums, and shows.”
It’s also a great place for her main office, according to Barnes. “One of the big advantages here is the strong collection of both media members and meeting planners. With modern technology, people can work from anywhere but I believe that birds of a feather flock together. That means we can see people face-to-face when we’re pitching stories. There’s a large media contingent in Toronto, which is really the New York of Canada, and all the top producers are in Los Angeles, so that’s helpful when we’re pitching TV content.”
Barnes took her first long trip at age 5, journeying to Colombia. She remembers monkeys in the trees, donkeys in the street, and her first encounter with poverty — something that sparked her lifelong interest in the underdog.
“In my job, I focus on strategy for all of our clients but I gravitate toward destinations that are trying to make comebacks,” says Barnes, who earned a marketing degree at Anderson University before gaining her masters in global marketing from Emerson College. She studied abroad in Costa Rica and Belgium without mastering the local languages — one of her few regrets.
“I highly recommend that anyone with an affinity for language should keep it up — it’s so useful,” she says.
Since its start in 1960, DCI has represented more than 450 clients, most of them cities, states, and foreign countries trying to attract tourism dollars. The current client list, which ranges from California and Chattanooga to Chile and Dubai, is both geographically and culturally diverse.
“There’s no learning curve for us,” she says when asked why clients choose DCI. “We’ve been doing this since 1960.”
The advent of social media has changed the job but not the message. “It’s transformed how we talk to consumers and how we talk to journalists,” says Barnes. “It’s opened up a whole new world in telling our clients’ stories.”
Recent successes include placing California’s chef Fabio on ABC’s Good Morning, America and creating an image of Chile as “the adventure capital of South America.”
Before embarking on a publicity campaign, DCI does a lot of research to determine how to best represent a client. Once those clients are signed, Barnes enjoys pitching them to journalists she encounters in her travels.
Her favorite place? “Namibia, Namibia, Namibia,” she says without hesitating. “I fell in love with it. I love the desert landscape in Southern Africa.”
DCI, which has won multiple awards for its work, often lands clients who approach Barnes with questions after one of her speaking engagements. “People always have questions,” she says. “When we get into a conversation about their needs, I always ask if they have somebody helping them. They might not need anybody at the time but could come back to us a year or two later.”
She has been booked as a speaker by such prestigious groups as the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalists Association, and Public Relations Society of America. Coupled with her client visits, the woman has been around the world several times before her 40th birthday.
“Am I where I thought I would be by the time I turned 40?” asked Barnes, who will reach the milestone in August. “What haven’t I checked off my list yet? I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do, but it’s definitely going to be something fun and definitely going to involve travel.”