The Selling of Grand Rapids and Michigan’s “West Coast”

    Douglas Small, newly-named president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau, was most recently senior vice president of the Greater Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    Corp!: What does the head of a convention and visitors bureau do?
    Small: Simply put, we put heads in beds. We’re the marketing arm for Grand Rapids and Kent County. At the same time we also market what we call the West Coast as a part of our overall destination package. People can go to the beach or whatever in half an hour, spend a few hours and then come back here for a great dinner at one of our more than 60 restaurants within walking distance of the convention center and spend the night in one of our major hotels -“ including the only J.W. Marriot (their top brand) in the Midwest, one of only 38 in the world.

    Corp!: Even though you’ve only been on the job a short time, can you tell us what makes the Grand Rapids area special -“ and hopefully makes your job easier than that of a counterpart on the other side of the state?
    : There are some really wonderful aspects about Detroit. But this economy is hurting everybody. No city can stick out its chest and say “We’re doing awfully good.” The great thing about Grand Rapids is that it’s a diversified economy. When things happen like what’s happening right now, we’re not sitting pretty either. But, at the same time, having a diversified economy is certainly working in our favor.
    Grand Rapids has a spirit of public/private partnerships. The leadership envisions a great community and then goes out and funds it.

    The convention center, the arena, the great hotels in between, all of the cultural activities -“ the Gerald Ford Library and Museum, the symphony, Meijer Gardens, the only professional ballet company in the entire state -“ they’re all the result of that partnership. And you don’t find this in cities twice our size. My job is to go out around the country and say “Folks, take one look at what we have to offer.” I want everyone -“ not just in the hotels, but the cab driver, the restaurant server, everyone -“ to promote the brand promise of Grand Rapids.

    Corp!: What’s your largest market?
    Small: Actually, one of them is religious conferences. In January we’re going to host the Religious Conference and Meetings Association, more than 2.000 folks whose job it is to hold meetings and conferences for their membership. They plan meetings from up to 30,000 people down to dozens. We’ve targeted the ones whose meetings best fit us in terms of size and, based on experience, most of them will bring their meetings here over the next few years. And, with our growing health sciences sector, with thousands of scientists working here publishing research papers read throughout the world, that’s certainly a growing market for us.

    Corp!: What do you do when you’re not working?
    Small: I spend time with my family. Twenty-five years of marriage, an 8-year-old daughter. And what do I do when I spend time with them? I cook. I’m a frustrated chef. A self-appointed food snob. My perfect weekend is spent in the kitchen, with a nice bottle of wine, preparing whatever I feel like preparing. Or, we could be playing golf. And when I’m not doing that, I’m a fan of college football -“ but cooking’s my passion, it’s truly my passion.

    Corp!: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you do? Why?
    Small: I think you know where I’m going with that -“ if I had any guts I’d be a chef, owning a restaurant. I’d name it after my daughter. I’d look for a nice brick building down an alley and call it Alley’s in the Alley -“ food with an attitude, because she certainly has it.

    Corp!: Where do you take clients for lunch? Dinner?
    Small: I’m like Switzerland, I’m neutral at all times. I’m what you might call Italian by diet, so if given a choice I’d look for one of our finer Italian spots. Mainly, anywhere where the chef is truly involved in the operation, with an eclectic menu with a lot of flavor.

    Corp!: What are you reading these days?
    Small: Rich DeVos has just published a book called Ten Phrases for Positive People and I heard him speak about it a few days earlier so I decided to read more about it. Other than that? Food magazines. But, you know what? Even with my love of good food, if I were to choose what would be a last meal, it would be a greasy cheeseburger.