Kentucky is known the world over for its relationship with and reverence for horses, and nowhere in the country is the horse celebrated more than at the Kentucky Horse Park. Presenting and promoting the state’s signature equestrian-themed attraction to the world is a tall order. Luckily, newly-named marketing director Esther Zunker is up to the task.
Finding Her Second Home
Hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, Zunker’s first impressions of Lexington came when she was touring colleges during her senior year in high school. Visiting Asbury College and the surrounding area, Zunker knew she had found her place.
“As we drove along, I was awestruck by the scenery – the horses and rolling hills. I couldn’t believe this place was just one state away. It was so completely different from anything I’d ever seen,” said Zunker. “I’d grown up in a huge city, attended a huge church and graduated from a huge high school. There was something very comforting about Asbury and the city of Wilmore.”
Upon graduation with a journalism degree, Zunker soon landed an internship and later a job at The Blood-Horse, one of the Thoroughbred horseracing industry’s leading publications. There, her passion for writing soon evolved into a passion for writing about horses.
“What I knew about Thoroughbred racing came from a handful of trips to Keeneland, but I pretty much dove in and started reading everything I could,” she said. “I’ll never forget my first Kentucky Derby. It was magical – like I was walking on air. I covered the red carpet and did interviews with the celebrities attending the Derby. To see all of the people and horses that everyone had been talking about, and I’d been writing about, in person on the biggest day of racing was incredible.”
In the nine years Zunker was with the magazine, she covered the biggest stories in horseracing and made a name for herself as a skilled feature writer.
“Writing for The Blood-Horse I found that I truly love connecting with people to write about their experiences,” she said.
A New Story to Tell
Zunker has always had a natural inclination toward marketing and public relations, so when the Kentucky Horse Park announced their search for a marketing director earlier this year, she was quick to pursue the opportunity.
“I had been focusing more on comprehensive communications in recent years, working for a wealth manager and also a local advertising agency. I was really enjoying what I was doing – project work, advertising, commercials - but the storytelling-style of writing wasn’t there, and more and more it was feeling like a missing piece of a puzzle for me,” said Zunker.
The Kentucky Horse Park is part equestrian theme park, part world-class competition venue and part Smithsonian Affiliate museum. In her role as marketing director, Zunker is responsible for sharing this unique Kentucky treasure with the world.
“There are always tons of different events going on, from horse shows, fairs and expos to community attractions like the Southern Lights Holiday Festival, 5K runs, museum exhibits and so much more,” she said. “Recently the Park has been hosting some of its own events as well [rather than serving as a venue for events run by third party organizations], like the Man o’ War Celebration Festival and the Bluegrass Rockin’ Rodeo.”
These independently-produced events are part of the Park’s evolving business model. The Kentucky Horse Park, which is a state park owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, has been open about their recent push to rely less on government funds and move more toward a self-sustaining model.
This necessitates a multi-pronged approach to marketing for Zunker and, while her responsibilities vary greatly from day to day, she wouldn’t want it any other way.
One day she might be working on a regional advertising campaign for the Park and hosting a media contingent from out of town, the next day she is managing the logistics for a fundraising dinner or event and handling editor duties for the Park’s signature magazine. Through all of it she is coordinating the Kentucky Horse Park’s social media channels to highlight the venue’s many breeds of horses, regular attractions and equestrian competitions while also focusing on building a marketing strategy that will help the Kentucky Horse Park work toward its goals.
“We’ve been trying to incorporate live videos at the horse shows we host and profiles of horses and riders into our social media,” said Zunker. “We have an agency we work with for many of our advertising initiatives, which allows me to focus on the broader strategy.”
While that many job responsibilities would keep anyone’s plate more than full, Zunker says the highlight of every day is time spent with her kids, Lyla (4) and Zion (1). “I’m grateful to work in such a beautiful place that constantly keeps my mind busy, but at the end of thee day, my favorite role is being a mom,” said Zunker. “The added bonus of working at the Kentucky Horse Park is bringing your family there to enjoy it, and I try to do that as much as I can! I love seeing my kids play and learn here.”