Experience GR launching program to enhance traveler experience


(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Ever get to a city, check into your hotel and then think, “Now what?” While some travelers have their phones loaded with helpful travel apps or a copy of “Lonely Planet” tucked inside their backpack, others are looking for suggestions from the city’s locals: Where are the “real” best restaurants? What unique festivals or shows are going on this time of year? And, where do people who live in the city like to spend their free time?

To help front-line hospitality employees answer those questions, Experience Grand Rapids is launching the Certified Tourism Ambassador Program, a national training program that provides destination training to boost staffs’ understanding of the region and activities in the market.

The program’s goal is to build a network of destination promoters and advisors to increase the quality of customer service a visitor receives anywhere around town where he or she might ask for advice on things to do while visiting. The hope is that guests will be exposed to the plethora of options the city has to offer, have a great time, and go home and tell their friends that Grand Rapids is a great place to visit.

“There are really two significant areas that this is going to bring,” said Janet Korn, Experience GR vice president. “It will help inform the community about the value of tourists, tourism and people visiting our community, and it will align us on the same message that they are important to our economy. During 2011, we had $1.19 billion of tourism in the greater Kent County area. This is a big business.

“Secondly, a large portion of the program is to build the story about how to help people have that great destination experience. … I think the larger part of the program is about all of the things there are to see and do here, and what makes this destination unique. It aligns, again, the messages and the answers that would be delivered to people. So it broadens the knowledge, and through that knowledge will be the transfer of the knowledge to visitors.”

In a nod to Experience GR’s commitment to the program, the organization has hired a full-time staff member who will oversee the CTA program and the visitor concierge team at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport under the title of visitor service manager.

Though it is part of a national certification training program, each city tailors the program to fit its needs. Korn said the first five months of 2013 would be spent developing that training for Grand Rapids and Kent County.

“We will be working alongside the parent entity behind the CTA program, Mickey Schaefer and Associates. … There is a lot of research and development, and then we create the materials for the training program from there.”

That work will result in a four-hour certification course. Once the course is completed, individuals will need to renew their certification on a yearly basis. They will also have online access to information, which will be updated regularly to keep up with the goings on of the city.

Korn expects initial trainees will come from area hotels and restaurants, and she expects people with an interest in a career in the hospitality field might become certified to boost their résumé.

Grand Rapids continues to grow as a tourist destination.

“From 2010 to 2011, tourism went up $15 million,” Korn said, referring to the tourism economy. “One component of tourism dollars in the tourism economy in the Kent County area is the overnight hotel stays. We track that on a month-to-month basis, and I can tell you right now that we are trending over 10 percent in 2012 over 2011. We are going to be closing out here, in a couple of weeks, a second record year for hotel revenue. … Those numbers come through Travel Michigan.”

Korn said that events like ArtPrize and LaughFest have helped put Grand Rapids in people’s minds as a place to visit. In addition, having local restaurants and bars on national “best of” lists also is reeling visitors into the city.

One national “best of” list that has really helped, according to Korn, was being named Beer City USA.

“With our recognition of Beer City USA, I think we have to really recognize that that is a significant driver of very passionate travelers that are traveling specifically to explore craft breweries,” she said. “Beer tourism is maybe a new label for it. I think it’s always been there but certainly the fact that we have this high concentration of quality breweries and brew pubs here. Founders (Brewing) is the poster child; they get more recognition and that just helps us.”

Additionally, Experience GR has been part of the Pure Michigan ad campaign, which reaches a national audience of travelers and has helped the state gain recognition for all it has to offer during each season.

“The other significant thing that we are going to do next year is we are going to take Grand Rapids to the national audience,” Korn said. “We’ve committed with Travel Michigan and the Pure Michigan brand to launch, next summer, a nationwide advertising/marketing campaign to promote Grand Rapids with the Pure Michigan brand. That will involve a brand new television commercial and that will be shared across the country.”

Grand Rapids will be the third Michigan city to institute the CTA program. Lansing and Kalamazoo adopted the program in 2010.

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