The Grand Rapids economy has fluctuated through the eras, and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel has been there for everything since 1913.
Rick Winn said he believes the Amway Grand provided an early spark for the latest growth in downtown Grand Rapids, serving as a local landmark and one of the only meeting spaces for a number of years.
As president of AHC+Hospitality, the Grand Rapids-based company that owns the hotel, it’s safe to say Winn is among the handful of community leaders who have spearheaded and propelled this growth.
“Whether you're in the private sector or the public sector, there's always been a great collaboration,” Winn said. “Grand Rapids has made a name for itself in other circles for having this great collaboration of ideas and people with different views.”
Winn has held his current position for over five years, beginning with the company in 1997 as Amway Grand general manager and then as vice president and managing director.
In the past four years, the AHC portfolio has grown from one hotel — the Amway Grand — to seven. The company also owns the JW Marriott Grand Rapids, Courtyard Grand Rapids Downtown and the coming AC Hotel Grand Rapids Downtown, as well as manages the coming Hyatt Place Grand Rapids/Downtown, Peter Island Resort & Spa in the British Virgin Islands and The Waterfront Inn in Florida.
Around the time Winn took over five years ago, he said he proposed the goal for an expansion of ownership and management, and he said the idea was supported and encouraged. AHC+Hospitality is a subsidiary of Amway’s holding company, Ada-based Alticor.
“For a company to embrace this industry and tourism as they have is really probably the best position a hotelier can be in,” Winn said.
The expansion began with offering management services to other hoteliers, using services developed at the Amway Grand as a model.
He said AHC’s core mission always will be focused on the growth of its home base, but that doesn’t mean the company can’t also continue expanding its services elsewhere.
“Our goal was to be able to hold onto talent as much as we could. One of the best ways to do that is to provide upward mobility for the people that are coming up within this industry,” he said, “which only makes us better and can provide a great way of expanding what we already do.”
Winn had experience growing a chain of hotels in his previous job as CFO of Adam’s Mark Hotels in St. Louis, where he started by helping open a 900-room flagship hotel.
The company had fewer than 10 hotels when he started. When he left, there were more than 20 hotels in its portfolio.
Winn said he sort of fell into his hospitality career.
He began college as a math major at Western Michigan University, intending to become a teacher. However, he learned during student teaching the field wasn’t best for him, so he added a business minor and decided he would pursue a business opportunity following graduation.
His numbers background landed him his first administrative job in the hospitality industry as an assistant controller for a hotel in Kalamazoo.
“I enjoyed the business so much that that was the trajectory for my whole career,” Winn said.
From there, Winn was recruited for the CFO position in St. Louis.
After a few years there, he said he felt it was time to spread out. He said he always had been interested in hotel operations, not just finance, and he wanted to get back to his home state of Michigan. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy serving and commiserating with people every day, and Winn said he considers himself that type of person.
He said his business background and his natural preference for working with people made a good combination for hospitality operations leadership.
When he saw the general manager position was open for the Amway Grand, he thought it was the perfect opportunity.
“I believe in hard work. I believe in responsibility. I believe in doing your best,” Winn said. “I believe that if you do all those things and you make it known that you are interested in doing more or something different, that the opportunity will present itself.”
There are many successful hotel companies, but Winn said he believes the business models formed by the DeVos and Van Andel families, who own Amway and its related companies, promote people to be the best they can be, which is the biggest difference he’s noticed since he chose to work for AHC.
“That probably was the best decision I could have made,” he said.
Winn said he believes that philosophy, plus his own respect for the workers and his penchant for teaching, has contributed to the success he’s found at AHC.
With six children, Winn’s parents couldn’t afford to finance his college, so he paid his way working as a bartender and in restaurants.
He said the main attributes he took from that experience are persistence and an understanding of every level of the industry. In hospitality, he said each individual worker — whether a bartender, housekeeper or manager — has equal ability to make a difference for a guest.
“We all have the same goal, in essence,” Winn said. “It comes down to every single person trying to be a gracious host.”
There typically is high turnover in hospitality compared to other fields, Winn said, and people often get new opportunities in new cities every few years. Staying with the same company in the same city for 20 years is unusual, he said, but the activity in the region has kept him fully engaged.
“There's never a dull moment in my career,” Winn said. “In this kind of environment, you can become part of that growth, part of that participation and really feel like you can make a difference.
“There has been no reason to want to leave. That's the bottom line.”
Such growth and participation from the community have propelled Grand Rapids to being included in many national lists, he said.
As many other cities have, Winn said the goal is to create a defined core hotel district in downtown Grand Rapids, which seems to be coming in place around the convention space areas along Monroe Avenue, due in large part to the work by AHC.
For visitors, that means there would be an area with a certain number of hotels, restaurants and other amenities to heighten their experience.
Dining experiences typically are one of the top memories for visitors, he said, so ensuring quality food and beverage is important. He said there are probably up to 20 quality restaurants downtown, and AHC is contributing to that, including by renovating Cygnus27, set to reopen next year.
Winn sits on several boards driving this next era of downtown Grand Rapids, with hands in projects such as the Grand River rapids restoration, a possible new convention hotel and a possible new amphitheater. All these will continue propelling the tourism and growth of downtown, he said, and will provide opportunities for the next citizens of this region.
“We say everything starts with a visit,” Winn said, referring to a saying in the tourism industry. Someone visiting a city may lead to finding a job there, living there or encouraging someone else to visit.
“That's what starts the snowball effect of people helping to grow a city.”