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Sunday, 22 January 2017 12:03

Experience Grand Rapids markets community assets for economic benefit

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Doug Small, executive director of Experience Grand Rapids.  Doug Small, executive director of Experience Grand Rapids. Photo by Katy Batdorff

Cities with professional sports teams have an edge when trying to attract prospective visitors, but Grand Rapids continues to compete successfully without this added advantage.

“If you took the Packers out of Green Bay, the city wouldn’t be as well known,” said Doug Small, executive director of Experience Grand Rapids. “We need to zig while everybody else zags because we’re not going to be seen on national television every Saturday and Sunday.”

The organization’s strategy focuses on heavily promoting what the city is best known for — beer, ArtPrize, museums, and the Van Andel Arena, to name just a few.

For its multifaceted efforts to bolster the tourism economy in the region, Experience Grand Rapids was named a finalist in the large organization category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. 

Grand Rapids has become known as a craft beer destination through recognitions such as Beer City USA and countless national articles, said Stephanie Kotschevar, public relations specialist for Experience Grand Rapids

With beer tourism on the rise, Experience Grand Rapids commissioned for a Beer Tourism Economic Study in 2015 and found that beer tourism was driving $12.23 million in economic output in Kent County. That led the group to develop its successful Beer City Passport promotion to give people a reward for visiting the more than two-dozen participating breweries in the region. 

“Marketing Grand Rapids as Beer City USA has been a huge success,” Kotschevar said. 

Small said when he moved from Denver, Colo. to take the helm of Experience Grand Rapids, he thought beer was a “nice hobby” for people. Then he watched as special launches of seasonal brews became major events that morphed into weeklong celebrations of beer.

“The beer scene: It’s for real,” Small said.

He is equally as enthusiastic about the city’s signature events such as ArtPrize and LaughFest.

“ArtPrize is just fantastic,” Small said. “I’ve always referred to it as our Rose Bowl. It puts a focus on Grand Rapids for all of those days. LaughFest has been great also and we do a better job of pulling people in from other areas. The timing and focus is good.”

But there also is a constant push to attract conferences, conventions, and sporting events. Experience Grand Rapids’ full-time staff of 28 people focus daily on marketing what the community has to offer and developing campaigns that put a face on Grand Rapids, Small said. 

That includes highlighting Kent County’s connection to the lakeshore and neighboring communities such as Grand Haven and Holland. It’s a no-brainer to showcase Grand Rapids’ proximity to Lake Michigan when meeting with prospective convention clients, he said.

Small said his organization works closely with its peers throughout the state to enhance what’s already here. He also said that Experience Grand Rapids is Travel Michigan’s largest financial partner and works with the statewide group on all kinds of promotions.

“It’s a process,” Small said. “Ultimately, the daily goal of everyone in this office is if they spend money, it better lead to hotel nights in the future. We have a full-time sales staff that’s focused on drawing conventions into the community. It took us years to convince the National Fraternal Order of Eagles to hold their convention here. They came here in 2012 and are coming back in July.”

Kent County collects lodging taxes and 80 percent of Experience Grand Rapids’ funding is generated by hotel nights.

When Small relocated to Grand Rapids 10 years ago, he said he saw the city’s potential and realized its full story wasn’t being told. This required the organization to identify what its brand pillars are and to push hard to get that brand in front of decision-makers. As far as Small is concerned, “brand” is really a promise that you can deliver on what you say.

“We feel that we are one of the top arts and culture communities in the Midwest, and we’re right in there with Chicago and Minneapolis. We set out to promote that as something Grand Rapids has,” he said. “Almost every city has a destination marketing organization. I think we compete well above our weight class.”

Small said he sees this when visitors make that initial visit and keep coming back, or when convention planners make the city a repeat location for their events.

“We enjoy getting up every day and going out and spreading what Grand Rapids has to offer to the world,” he said. 

Experience Grand Rapids:

  • Mission: To lead the marketing of Grand Rapids and Kent County as a premier convention and visitor destination, providing a significant positive impact to the West Michigan economy.
  • Service area: Grand Rapids and Kent County
  • Executive director:
  • Doug Small
  • Number of employees: 28
  • Annual budget: $9.6 million
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