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A Different Kind of CEO

Doug Small ’82 Leads Efforts to ‘Experience Grand Rapids’

For Doug Small, it is about the destination, not the journey.

As president and “Chief Experience Officer” of Experience Grand Rapids, he leads the destination marketing non-profit organization charged with the mission to market Michigan’s second largest city and the surrounding region as a premier convention and visitor destination.

“When I got the opportunity to come here and interview, I saw the city and said, ‘Wow, this is a place I really want to be,’ ” said Small, who received his bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management from Siena Heights in 1982. “What’s not to love about choosing to live in a city, and whatever that city is, you get to get up every day and represent it? That was exciting to me, and still is.”

After graduating from Siena Heights, Small got his start as a banquet manager at the Sheraton Westgate Hotel in Toledo, Ohio. However, he soon realized destination marketing was his future career path.

“While working in Dayton (Ohio), I got my first real taste of the destination marketing side,” he said. “It got me excited to look at that as a potential career.”

From there, he took a job in resort-driven Palm Springs, Calif., which also allowed him to manage offices in places like London and Frankfort, giving him a taste of international experience. He said he took a very “strategic” path to where he is today.

“Every (career) move was part of my strategy of moving up in the industry,” he said. “My ultimate goal one day was to be the president and CEO of a destination marketing organization.”

He got his chance by becoming president of the Greater Syracuse (N.Y.) Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2003. After three years, he decided he wanted to pursue an opportunity closer to his hometown of Defiance, Ohio. However, when a similar position opened up in Cincinnati, Ohio, he did not get it, and asked why.

“I asked them where my shortcomings were, and they felt I had not worked in a city that did not have a large enough convention space,” Small said of the Cincinnati interview process. “Which was fair enough, because I had not.”

“I still continue to push Siena Heights to students around here. It’s the closest thing to family you’ll have outside of your real family . . . It set the tone for me to grow up and be a man and gave me the confidence to go out into the world.”

Using that feedback, he accepted a senior vice president position with the Denver (Colo.) Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said that experience prepared him well when he took on his current role in 2008. During his time in Grand Rapids, he has led an organizational rebranding campaign while raising the tourism and business profile of
the region.

Originally named the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Small said the name did not fit the brand he wanted to build. In 2010, the organization was renamed Experience Grand Rapids.

“That name is long, bureaucratic and there’s no call to action,” Small said. “For those three reasons we needed to rebrand. … (Experience Grand Rapids) tells folks exactly what we want them to do. And because of that name, we came up with Chief Experience Officer because it says exactly what we are and what I should be doing.”

And just what does he do?

“I think the most important role that a president of a destination marketing organization should take on is to get out in the community,” Small said. “You’ve got to be out convincing these folks that what we are doing is helping build a tax base, helping create jobs, helping create revenues for small businesses. That’s my role.”

He sits on several different community boards and organization locally and statewide. “As president and CEO, I have got to serve in the community for our organization, and be a convener and a collaborator,” Small said.

He said the Grand Rapids brand is strong, and getting stronger. When he started, Grand Rapids hotels had a 48 percent occupancy rate (the national average is 62 percent). In 2015, Grand Rapids had a rate of 67.5 percent.

Grand Rapids, MI skyline.
Grand Rapids, MI skyline.

“What that’s done for me is put more stress on me,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me is, while we’ve grown revenue, we’ve also grown enormous expectations. … I’ve got to continue to make certain that I’m communicating and working closely with our largest stakeholders.”

He said Grand Rapids is building on the “brand pillars” of arts/culture, local natural resources and craft beer. In fact, the USA Today recently named Grand Rapids “Best Beer Scene” because of the nearly 40 breweries in the region. It even calls itself “Beer City USA.”

“We feel that we do those three things as well as anybody in the country,” he said. “That’s what we push out there and deliver to folks. And it works.”

He said increasing the convention business is also a top priority. Vying with cities such as Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Louisville, competition is fierce.

“We still have a long way to go with brand recognition,” he said of the convention market. “The biggest challenge for us right now is convincing people to come and take a look at us. We’re not yet taken serious enough as a city that’s viewed as a great convention city. What’s remarkable, is once you get them here they sit there and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew.’”

He said he considers Grand Rapids his “final career destination.”

“This city is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s because private industry leads the charge, not public. In most cities, everybody expects the public trough to take care of everything, build the community. That’s just not going to happen. Here, we are very fortunate because there are some deep pockets in this community, and more importantly they are willing to invest in their hometown.”

Small calls the first stop on his career destination—Siena Heights—a “great experience.”

“I still continue to push Siena Heights to students around here. It’s the closest thing to family you’ll have outside of your real family,” he said. “The friends I made at Siena Heights, we still get together. It’s more than a degree for me. It set the tone for me to grow up and be a man and gave me the confidence to go out into the world.”

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