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 “green 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. This is a two part story. Make sure to read the first part of the story here.
Alright so you've landed the job, and you have a lot of great tools and resources that make it a great job, but what are some of the challenging aspects of your role as a CEO?
No CEO in a not for profit should ever take their primary funding sources for granted. One of the most challenging parts is keeping those primary funding sources intact. How do you do that? By creating a return on investment. I have a guiding principle: everything we do with the dollars that have been granted to us should lead to a future hotel room night. If it leads to a future hotel room night, then we are returning on the investment. So, the challenge is to continue to show our stakeholders that they've invested in us wisely. This is what I'm constantly thinking about, and that hasn't changed throughout my career. Along with that was building trust, being authentic and creating transparency with our partners. I worked very, very hard at that and do so to this day.
OK so that's a big picture challenge for you and for the organization. Something some people may be surprised to know is that you work a lot with policy makers. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I've been told that I have the kind of personality and ability to run for office and win. My response has always been, "I'm already in politics. Why would I go out there and put myself through that; my family through that?" But honestly, I enjoy the advocacy part of my job. Now, don't get me wrong. There are times when I come home and want to pull my hair out because it's frustrating, but we are entrusted with some government funds, and it’s our job to make sure the public, elected officials and everyone else knows what we're doing with the funds that we've been provided. The same goes for our private funds, which make up nearly 82% of our overall funding. The hotels provide this funding through their guests and as such, they too expect results.
More importantly, we should show them the results of their investments. I think a lot of people would be surprised if they shadowed me on a weekly basis how much of my work involves "setting the table" with the public and private sectors, keeping our mission top of mind and why it's an economic asset to the community. Our work not only builds revenues and tax bases, it also allows for a better quality of life for the citizens of Kent County.
So, your job, when you're out there talking to lawmakers, stakeholders and the community is to keep our mission top of mind and relevant?
Yes, and there could be a variety of reasons why I'm talking with these folks. A lot of times it doesn't have to do with legislation that directly involves Kent County, but maybe it affects the state. If it impacts the state, then Kent County will benefit. So, really, I often wear that "Michigan hat."
It's the same in my role on the board for the U.S. Travel Association, the largest travel association in the country. People ask, "how does that help Grand Rapids?" Well, if I'm advocating for our nations’ travel industry, the trickledown effect makes it good for Grand Rapids.
Now let's look at the opposite end of the spectrum. What's the most rewarding part of being a CVB CEO?
It's twofold: The first is watching us take this $11 million budget and seeing that $1.39 billion has been returned to the community. Obviously, it isn't all because of us but I know that we are a part of that return on investment. That makes me feel good. Our industry and our stakeholders are small business owners, and to see our efforts affect those small business owners is a good feeling. It's also exciting to see the growth in our industry in West Michigan. I say it all the time, it isn't because of "Doug Small," it's because of our organization’s hard work. When I came here in 2008, we were running a 48% hotel occupancy, and last year we ran 66%. That's huge! And, more importantly, we've grown from $98 million dollars in hotel room revenue to last year finishing at $216 million. To me, that is success.
The second, though some may think is on the corny side, but to see the team of professionals at Experience Grand Rapids, come together and create tremendous opportunity for our stakeholders is really fulfilling and satisfying.
Additionally, while I might question myself a couple of times a year, I actually enjoy getting up and coming to work every day. I know I say this a lot, but the fact that I get to get up every day and promote the city that I chose to live in is just really cool and an honor.
It's obvious how much you love this city. If you were talking to someone coming to visit Grand Rapids, what would you tell them they HAVE to do while in town?
I would tell a visitor to ask a local what the locals do. So, instead of saying, "ok I’m going to go do this because it's popular," locals are the best resource to discovering the "real" destination. I love neighborhoods. When I go to a city, I love to explore neighborhoods. Obviously, you have a downtown core that's really vibrant and cool like Grand Rapids, but I think the real flavor of a destination is in its neighborhoods. When you explore a neighborhood, you're bound to find those cool, local spots with a great vibe.