Experience Grand Rapids makes a big impact on the economy and quality of life in West Michigan thanks to the talents and dedication of our diverse employees. From the leadership of our CEO to the warmth and hospitality of our concierge “light blue jacket” staff at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, our team members’ experiences are vast, and they all have a story to tell. Collectively and individually, they make promoting our destination very rewarding work.

Recently, Experience Grand Rapids’ CEO and President, Doug Small, provided insight into what it takes to succeed in destination marketing. Small’s EXGR tenure has been marked by record increases in tourism numbers and revenues, and his accomplishments have earned him a number of recognitions – including both a Lifetime Achievement Award from the West Michigan Food & Beverage Industry and an Outstanding Alumni Award from Siena Heights University in 2023 – so he knows whereof he speaks.

How did you get into hospitality?

I am one of the few people that actually studied hospitality in college and then made a career out of it. My roommate was in the program, and I was studying elementary education. He would talk about classes like International Cuisine, which sounded like a lot of fun, so I decided to change my major; that simple. After graduating in 1982, my first job was a banquet manager at the Sheraton Westgate – the largest hotel in Toledo at the time. From there, I took a job as the sales manager for a Hilton hotel in Dayton where I had the opportunity to travel to tradeshows with the Dayton CVB. In 1986, the *CVB vice president offered me a job – my first in destination marketing as the convention sales manager – and I never looked back.

 *CVB= Convention & Visitors Bureau, now more commonly known as a DMO (Destination Marketing Organization)

Your career has led you to many places throughout the U.S. What took you to cities like Palm Springs, Syracuse and Denver?

It was the warm weather that attracted me to the West Coast. While living and working in Dayton, I had a friend at the Palm Springs CVB who was moving on, and he encouraged me to apply for his job (Director of Sales). I eventually worked my way up to vice president at Palm Springs, which at that time was the number two position. But I knew my boss, the CEO, wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, and I had started to get the itch to be a CEO myself. That's when I heard about the president’s role opening at the CVB in Syracuse, New York. They were getting ready to open a new resort and convention hotel and as such, were looking for someone with my type of experience to lead their efforts.  It was my first CEO position.

In 1986, the CVB vice president offered me a job – my first in destination marketing – and I never looked back.

After a three-year stint in Syracuse, I made another strategic move and accepted the offer to be the Senior Vice President of Visit Denver. Some would say moving from CEO to senior vice president is a step down, but part of my plan was to gain experience in a high profile destination, with a large convention package and a larger budget.

And then from Denver you made your way to Grand Rapids. That's quite the journey across the country!

It was. But every move along the way was strategic. I never moved because I was disinterested in my job. I moved to make my next career step. I knew I had to work my way into a CEO role. The move from CEO to Senior Vice President in a larger market is an example of those strategic moves.  I had actually applied to become to CEO of the Cincinnati CVB while in Syracuse, but finished second in the process. When I asked the selection committee what areas I might have needed to obtain the job, they said that my career lacked a high-profile, larger destination and convention package. I made the decision to leave Syracuse as a CEO and move to Denver as Senior Vice President.

Then came time for another move, this time while still strategic professionally, it had a personal or family component to it. Kim and I decided we wanted to move closer to our families in the Midwest (Ohio), so I began to search for a CEO position in a Midwest city. 

So, the big question, why Grand Rapids?

I'll be honest, Grand Rapids wasn't even on my shortlist of inspirational cities at the time. I was looking at larger destinations like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. But then, a friend reached out and told me the CEO job was open in Grand Rapids. I wasn't too interested but he said 'You need to check it out. It's a great city!’ So I took him up on it and inquired.

On the personal side, it checked all the boxes; three hours from our families and near many college friends in Michigan. Professionally I was also looking for a destination that had the attributes and characteristics to compete while also having a lot of room for growth. I saw that Grand Rapids had the primary components in place, the only thing it didn't have was swagger and brand recognition beyond 300 miles.  Basically, I saw there was opportunity to make an impact. I was particularly fortunate because I inherited a solid nucleus of staff who loved their city and they too wanted to create a more recognizable brand.

What is one thing you would tell a young professional or someone that is looking to get into that CEO role?

The one thing I'd say, looking back on my career, is you must have flexibility and a plan. I knew that when I was making moves in my career, they were strategic and leading to that CEO role in a destination I really wanted to be in.

Flexibility is so important, and it doesn't necessarily mean you have to move all over the U.S. like I did. It could mean that you are flexible in your role. Look at different roles and jobs and ask questions and take some risks. Learn as many skills as possible to help you grow as a professional and as an individual. Being a CEO is not for everyone, but if you're interested, I recommend creating a strategic plan, being flexible and to be able to get up each day and get after the task at hand.  If you only have 3 things to be a success, I’d insist that it be positive attitude, unwavering character and an unbridled enthusiasm.  These constants will make you, your business associates and partners and those you surround yourself with successful.