SAUGATUCK — Ken Fischang hopes to do for tourism in Saugatuck what he did during 12 years at the helm of Sonoma County Tourism in California.
Fischang, 58, officially took over on June 21 as the executive director for the Saugatuck/Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. He replaces Felicia Fairchild, who resigned in 2016 after 27 years.
Although he is compiling a daunting “to-do” list to increase Saugatuck’s tourism reach, Fischang’s most immediate concern is securing additional funding to take his plans to the next level. The Saugatuck area collects a 2-percent assessment on lodging, but Fischang would like to boost that to 5 percent, on par with what other regions get.
“We need to increase that funding so that we can be more competitive with other destinations,” Fischang said.
Currently, the Saugatuck/Douglas Area CVB receives $330,000 via the assessment, but increasing it to 5 percent would net an additional $425,000, he said. That additional funding would enable Fischang to increase his current staff of 2.5 people, overhaul the group’s website, boost advertising of the area’s September-to-May value season and market the area as a destination.
“We need to look at what we can do to bring in more meetings,” he said. “Business and tourist travel comes at that time of year and we have a lot of amenities and reasons why people should come here year ’round. This is something I was able to do in Sonoma.”
Tourism spending in the coastal and wine-rich Sonoma County where Fischang previously worked totals more than $1.9 billion annually and brings in $158.4 million in tax revenue, according to the county’s website.
Andrew Milauckas, chairman of the board of directors for Saugatuck/Douglas Area CVB, said Fischang understands the authentic and unique character of the area.
“He brings a great deal of destination marketing experience to Saugatuck Douglas, and we are confident that he will lead our organization to the next level and beyond,” Milauckas said. “The search committee sees this as an important investment in our future.”
The journey back to Michigan is a homecoming of sorts for Fischang, who spent three years as executive director and vice president of tourism and marketing at the Kalamazoo County Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce prior to taking the job in Sonoma. In his previous roles in Michigan and California, Fischang was credited with building nationally recognized tourism destination organizations from the ground up. During his time in Sonoma, for example, he increased the staff from two to 27 people.
However, his resignation in May was characterized as “abrupt” in an article in the Press Democrat, which tied Fischang’s departure to the county’s annual review of the Tourism Bureau’s contract. The review included results of an independent audit that raised concerns with credit card payments for travel expenses in 2016.
Prior to these concerns, Fischang said he averaged 98 percent out of 100 percent on his annual reviews and never received disciplinary action. After tendering his resignation, Fischang said his attorney negotiated a severance package, the details of which he can’t discuss.
“It was a very frustrating experience. I have never, ever had bad press of any kind,” Fischang said. “My board here in Saugatuck did a complete investigation and confirmed that during my time in Sonoma, we had annual audits and had 11 years of clean opinions.”
He and his partner of 25 years continued to maintain a home in Michigan and made frequent visits back during their time in Sonoma. They were in the process of building a new home with the intent of eventually moving back to the state when the new job opportunity became available.
“We wanted to come back here full time and everything fell into place,” Fischang said.
Milauckas said once he and his board members became aware of the Press Democrat story, they did additional due diligence.
“This delayed our decision by about four weeks as we waited for additional information to become available. Once we had the additional information, we were confident to continue moving forward,” Milauckas said. “Our vetting of Ken was very thorough.”
For his part, Fischang said he is moving forward with an agenda to build on the momentum created by Fairchild, his predecessor. He said the Saugatuck/Douglas board recently approved plans to join the Michigan Society of Association Executives and the Association Forum of Chicago, which will increase the capacity to market the area as a small meeting location.
A small meeting would encompass about 25 people, while tour and travel groups generally have between 25 and 50 people, he said. Venues such as the Saugatuck Center for the Arts could easily accommodate these groups.
The largest hotel property in the region is the 81-room Dunes Resort in Douglas, which caters to the LGBTQ community. Saugatuck has numerous vacation rentals and independently-owned lodging establishments, but no commercial or chain lodging properties.
“It’s a delicate balance because many people who come here want to get custom service and a more European and high-end style experience that Saugatuck Douglas offers,” Fischang said. “I can’t see our community courting Hyatt, Marriott or Hilton. We don’t want it to become a typical suburban town. That’s part of the charm of this area.”