Inside Track: Small sells GR with a passion

Experience Grand Rapids president and CEO rates city among the top 3 Midwest destination locations.
Douglas Small has worked in the convention and destination industry in at least five cities and he calls what Grand Rapids has “unique.” Courtesy Mod Bettie

Douglas Small’s job is to sell Grand Rapids to the rest of the world.

Despite losing hundreds of convention groups that scheduled events in Grand Rapids to the pandemic and millions in revenue, Small, the president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, an organization that markets Grand Rapids as a visitor destination, said they still are booking conventions for 2022 and 2023. 

“We never stopped, we never quit because of the pandemic,” he said. “Our sales team, albeit less than half of what it was before, is still selling nationally. We continue to do virtual site inspections. We have consumers who are looking at our destination virtually. We are marketing and promoting our campaign nationwide.”

Small’s drive for garnering visitors to Grand Rapids post-pandemic can be attributed to his more than three decades of experience in the industry. He has made a career out of attracting events in all the cities in which he has worked.

Small’s journey into the tourism and hospitality industry began when he took his first job as a banquet manager at what was then a Sheraton Hotel in Toledo, Ohio.

As the manager, he was in charge of between 20 and 25 food, beverage and wait staff. On average, Small said, he managed breakfast events that saw 300 people in the morning, Rotary lunches that attracted 250 people, and conventions. Small said he would manage three large events per day in addition to small meetings.

But Small grew to like the sales part of the industry more than the events part.

Experience Grand Rapids
Position: President and CEO
Age: 60
Birthplace: Napoleon, Ohio
Residence: Grand Rapids Township
Family: Wife, Kimberly; son Davidson and daughter Alexandra
Business/Community Involvement: Boards of directors for the U.S. Travel Association, West Michigan Sports Commission, Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan, Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
Biggest Career Break: Attending a trade show with the vice president of the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau who later offered him job.

“I figured that you have all these salespeople who were selling all these meetings,” he said. “They are going out and soliciting all these companies to have a meeting at my hotel instead of the Hilton down the street. They were selling all these events and while they sell them, I had to put up with what they sold and sometimes they would sell these dreams and I had to service the nightmare. I realized that I wanted to be that guy, the guy who promises everything and delivers on it.”

After two years at the Sheraton, Small took a job in sales at the Sawmill Creek Resort in Ohio, where he solicited conventions and meetings to the resort.

Six months later, he took a sales manager position at a Hilton Hotel in the downtown area. After a couple of years, he had the opportunity to become the director of sales at a Residence Inn in Dayton, Ohio. At the time, the hotel chain was emerging onto the scene and he had the unique opportunity to pre-sell the venues to meetings and convention groups before they officially opened.

A year-and-a-half later, he took a position as a sales manager at the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau (DCVB.) The city was the home to companies like NCR Corporation, Mead Corporation, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the University of Dayton and others.

Small spent six years at DCVB, directing meetings and convention groups to the entire city instead of one hotel. He eventually became the director of sales and marketing.

Small said his career is based on strategic moves in elevating his position, so he headed west to become the vice president of sales at Palm Springs Desert Resort Convention & Visitors Authority in California.

“Palm Springs is a world-class destination,” he said. “People from all over the world would go there. That was where Frank Sinatra lived. It was where Bob Hope’s and President Ford’s winter homes were located. It was 90 minutes from Los Angeles so that was where the LA crowd would hang out. For a young poor kid from Northwest Ohio, that was a pretty cool gig. I stayed there for 10 years.”

He went on to become the president of the Greater Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau in New York. The goal was to expand a mega mall called Destiny USA into an “under-glass Disney,” but it never materialized and after three years, Small applied for a CEO position in Cincinnati but finished as the runner-up.

Small wanted to know where he fell short.

“(They) said, ‘You have been to all these great destinations but none of them have big convention centers’ because they were expanding their convention center at the time,” Small said. “They said they needed someone who had big convention experience.”

A couple of months later, he got an opportunity of a lifetime when he became the senior vice president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. The organization had the goal of expanding the convention center to compete with other large cities like Dallas and Orlando.

While working in Denver, Small wanted to be closer to his family in Ohio. He learned about an open position in Grand Rapids.

“I got curious enough to do my research and what I discovered was, even back in 2008, the product was a solid, competitive product, great convention center, great hotel product and wonderful attractions. Meijer Gardens is world-class. The art scene, even before ArtPrize, was great. It seemed to have a good downtown, so I applied and made it to the final three. They set up an interview for me to come and visit with them.”

But Small got caught in a bind. Denver won the bid to host the Democratic National Convention after raising $90 million and demonstrating that the Mile High City had the proper meeting and convention space, among other things.

He was a part of the hosting committee and prior to knowing who the Democratic presidential nominee was, the event was slated to be held at the Pepsi Center, which could hold approximately 18,000 people. After realizing that Barack Obama, the first African American presidential candidate, was going to be formally nominated, the hosting committee had to quickly pivot to hosting the historic event at Mile High Stadium, which seated about 70,000 people.

Small’s Grand Rapids interview was scheduled on the day of the last meeting for the hosting committee before the Democratic National Convention. As a result, he could not make the Grand Rapids interview. He was on the verge of withdrawing until he was given the opportunity to do the interview over the phone.

After the phone interview, Small was invited for another in-person that he said he could not turn down. As a result, he had to watch Obama’s acceptance speech on TV. He did the interview and was offered the position of president and chief executive officer of Experience Grand Rapids.

One of Small’s first challenges was to get Grand Rapids’ hotel occupancy rate above 70%. At the time, the hotel occupancy rate was 48%. In 2016, the occupancy rate rose to around 65%. In 2019, the rate was 66.1%.

Small and his staff are marketing Grand Rapids as a unique brand, a promise that entities can look forward to when they come to Grand Rapids.

“The craft beverage scene — not craft beer, craft beverage scene — is one of our brand characteristics,” he said. “We feel that between beer, distilleries, cider and coffee, we can do it as much as anybody in the country. We have a food scene. Some people say farm to table, I say earth to table because we have the lakes. We have very good earth-to-table restaurants in our community that use locally sourced Michigan ingredients. We tout that. We can deliver on that. We have art and culture. I would say outside of Minneapolis and Chicago, which I think are the top two cultural cities in the Midwest, Grand Rapids is third because of our museums and performing arts. Our other brand is outdoor recreation. You can run, bike, hike — all within downtown or within minutes of downtown. It is all right there. Those are brand characteristics that if we promise, I guarantee we can deliver on them.”

In 2016, Small and his team decided to do a study to figure out how they can get hotel occupancy rates over 70%. Two of the things the study showed was that they needed to complete the Grand River restoration project and build a convention hotel. 

“We need to get the river done,” he said. “The river is a game-changer. I want to see it get done during my career. Everyone says we have all these new hotels downtown, but the study showed they are not the right kind of hotels to attract convention planners. They don’t want to be in 10 hotels. Convention planners want to be in four hotels and if they cannot be in four hotels in Grand Rapids, they won’t come here. They know they can get that in Kansas City and Milwaukee, who we compete with, so why would you want to go to Grand Rapids to go to 10 hotels? It is all about location, location, location, which means I want the fewest rooms I can get closest to my meeting venue.”

Small chaired a task force to look into the potential of building a publicly owned 500-room hotel on top of the convention center. Those plans are on hold due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 did not stall the expansion project at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, however, which the study showed would be a huge draw in bring people in from out of town.

“I think Grand Rapids has a mixed spirit to it,” he said. “I think I, more than a lot of people in this community, can judge because I have been in five destinations, so I know the DNA of those five destinations and none of them are like Grand Rapids. We are going to come out of this better and quicker than most destinations.”

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