After spending decades in California, Tom Bennett has returned to Michigan as Experience Grand Rapids’ vice president of sales and services. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids
Over the years, Tom Bennett has watched Grand Rapids develop from afar.
Prior to becoming the new vice president of sales and services at Experience Grand Rapids a little more than a year ago, Bennett was accustomed to flying back and forth between California and Michigan.
Bennett grew up in Lansing, the eldest of five brothers. After moving to California to attend California State University, Fullerton, Bennett came back often to visit his family, flying into Grand Rapids before heading home to the state capital.
At the time, Grand Rapids wasn’t enough to draw him away from the California lifestyle. “I lived it and loved it,” he said of the nearly 20 years he lived there.
Years of networking finally brought him back to Michigan when one day an old friend, Experience Grand Rapids President and “Chief Experience Officer” Doug Small, called him.
Bennett and Small had become friends while working in the convention and tourism business in California, and they continued to stay in touch when Small moved on work for the Greater Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau and then the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I ran into Doug, and he said they were hiring a search firm for the VP of sales in Grand Rapids,” Bennett said.
Recently divorced, Bennett saw it as an opportunity to immerse himself in his work. It also would allow him to do something he’d always wanted to do: live in the heart of a downtown.
He now lives no more than a five-minute walk from work — a far cry from years spent commuting for hours in the Los Angeles area. He now enjoys downtown Grand Rapids’ nightlife and cultural attractions, all within a few minutes’ walk.
In a way, Bennett’s hiring at Experience Grand Rapids brings him full circle and showcases how important networking can be.
Small was happy in his position in Denver when he fielded a call from Bennett telling him a head hunter was looking to fill the top role at Grand Rapids’ visitor and convention bureau.
“I said, ‘Stop whatever you’re doing — you and Grand Rapids would be a perfect fit,’” Bennett said.
Now the two are back together, with Bennett making sure the sales staff for Experience GR is working in the correct markets and getting the most out of selling the destination.
“You will be hard pressed to find a more passionate, skilled sales person and proven leader in the area of travel-industry sales,” Small said at the time of Bennett’s hiring last year.
“His charisma, knowledge and extensive client base was evident both in the interview process and in the results produced with past destination-marketing organizations.”
Bennett likens Grand Rapids to Chicago, having all the amenities of a larger city but in a “more manageable fashion.”
He listed the variety of museums, performance groups, cultural events, sports teams and craft breweries people can enjoy that match up with cities of a much larger size: opera, symphony, ballet, the Public Museum, Children Museum, Art Museum and Gerald R. Ford Museum, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, ArtPrize and LaughFest.
“There’s something for everyone here, from adults to families,” he said. “The product is excellent.”
DeVos Place Convention Center and its proximity to hotels and restaurants downtown make it easy for a sales team to bring in prospective clients and show them exactly what they can expect to find, all within blocks of one another, he said.
Experience Grand Rapids is measured on how many hotel room nights it generates, and it continues to break records. In 2013, it sold a then-record 137,490 hotel rooms, which climbed to more than 140,000 last year.
Bennett said he wants to take that number well beyond previous records.
“I’m not here to be average,” he said. “We’ll push Grand Rapids to book as many events as we can. We’re still building that brand equity.”
Bennett has added to his sales staff, including Leslie Hastings, who is based in Washington, D.C., where many national associations are headquartered. Hastings also represents Sacramento, where Bennett once was senior vice president of sales.
“They have a similar look and feel to the convention districts; it’s a natural partnership,” Bennett said.
One of the keys to selling a destination is to know its size limitations. He said sales staff must target specific-size groups that fit the capabilities of Grand Rapids’ venues.
Bennett explained how a group of 40 meeting planners associated with various medical associations recently visited Grand Rapids. Although the city isn’t large enough to host a national convention of all the associations, individually Grand Rapids is a good fit for them.
Destination sales weren’t always in Bennett’s sights, but business and sales was something that had attracted him since college, when he studied business at Cal State Fullerton.
“I knew I was going into something business-related,” he said. “I love interaction, networking. It was always appealing to me. I’m also competitive. Now I love working head-to-head against other cities trying to get a convention.”
He started out working for Staff Pro Security in Los Angeles, selling security services to conventions, trade and award shows at the L.A., Anaheim and Long Beach convention centers.
“I earned my bones at that security company,” Bennett said. “We’d sell security to concerts, special events, American Film Institute, the Emmy’s …”
In 1994, he moved on to GES — Global Exposition Specialists, the world’s largest convention and trade show general contractor, where he helped to create massive shows from scratch.
In 1997, he had a short stint with the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, and in 1998, he joined the Anaheim/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau where he became convention sales director.
Having already worked with many convention decision-makers in the L.A. area, Bennett said the transition was easy. Working in the tourism industry involves attending a lot of events and doing a lot of networking, he said. A salesman in the industry gets to know the others in the industry well.
In 2000, he became senior vice president of sales at the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. A stint at Visit Newport Beach Inc. took him back to the L.A. area between 2010-2012, before returning to the Sacramento area to be closer to his daughter, taking a job as vice president of sales and marketing for Production Strategies Inc.
His decision to leave Newport Beach was one of the few career moves with which he wasn’t entirely happy. Bennett said he worked with great people at Production Strategies but wasn’t doing what he wanted to be doing, and, since the job was commission-based, he lacked a steady paycheck. Despite the negatives, he was happy to be living near his daughter and had no plans to move — until the opportunity in Grand Rapids came about.
From his early days selling security to his current position — selling a mid-size city to major associations — Bennett said his target never really changed.
“From the beginning to today, I’m still talking to the same decision makers,” he said. “Really all that changed are the destinations I’m selling.”
As a salesman, Bennett said he’s happy he found a niche where he can make a whole region happy instead of just pleasing clients and the company he works for.
“I find it more appealing to sell a destination than anything else,” he said. “It’s really rewarding because you know it positively impacts so many people.”