Small is bullish about West Michigan

December 1, 2008
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Doug Small is being seen as a big addition to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have been impressed with how quickly he has been meeting with the various stakeholders in our community, working effectively with staff and the board members, setting goals, and embracing Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” said Kathleen Ponitz, chairwoman of the bureau’s board of directors.

“Doug will not only be a terrific CVB president, but Doug and his family will also be good citizens of our community,” she added.

“I think what impressed me the most was Doug’s grasp of what makes our community great and his vision of where we can go both as a community and as a destination. He is bullish about Grand Rapids and so am I,” said Lew Chamberlin, who served on the search committee and is a CVB board member.

Small, a native of Napoleon, Ohio, who turned 48 on Thanksgiving, was chosen by an 11-member search committee in August to replace Steve Wilson, the CVB’s longtime president who moved back to his hometown of Flint to run a major foundation. Small took over the bureau’s reins in mid-September.

“This is the easiest transition I’ve ever had for two reasons. One was Steve Wilson. He built one heck of a convention and visitors bureau,” said Small.

The other reason?

“The partnership and the synergy between the public and private entities was phenomenal. … I wanted to come into a community that had the same goals and vision that I have and take it to the next level.”

Quite ironically, Small got into the convention business unexpectedly. He earned his degree in hotel and restaurant institutional management from Sienna Heights College in Adrian, Mich., and began dabbling in the lodging industry, with, as he put it, one eye open and one eye shut.

While he was employed at the Hilton Hotel in Dayton, Ohio, he manned the city’s CVB booth at a trade show in Cleveland, and his work made a favorable impression on the bureau, especially Bill Odorizzi. They invited him to become a member of the team at a time when he said he really didn’t know what a convention and visitors bureau did exactly, other than provide support to the hotels.

But Small accepted that position and hasn’t looked back since.

“I wasn’t quite sure that was going to be a future and I’ve done nothing else since. That was 1986,” he said.

“To this day, I still consider Bill, who was the vice president at the time, my mentor. He was the one who really took me under his wing and groomed me as a convention-and-visitors-bureau person. I just talked to him two weeks ago. We stay in touch about once a month.”

Small came here from Denver, where he was the senior vice president for that city’s CVB, one of the nation’s most successful and largest bureaus. He also was president of the CVB in Syracuse, N.Y., vice president of sales for the bureau in Palm Springs, Calif., and director of marketing at the Dayton CVB.

Although he once stood under the “bright lights” of Denver — where his last event was the Democratic National Convention — Small said size isn’t everything to him. He came from a bureau with a $16 million budget to one with $4.5 million to spend.

“The big stage in Denver was important to me. I will tell you that I don’t think I would have gotten the job in Grand Rapids had it not been for my experience in Denver. We were able to do about every meeting possible there,” he said.

“But I think you can make a bigger impact in a community this size, so the size of the market never really concerned me.”

Nor does the size of his office concern him because Small doesn’t plan to spend a lot of time behind his desk. He recently told members of the Convention and Arena Authority that he would be “hitting the streets” and soon, on sales trips to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“I’m a salesperson at heart going back to the day that Bill Odorizzi gave me that shot. Our goal is to try to do as many site inspections as possible to get the customer to come to view the city. I’m pretty confident that once we get them to view the city, we can hook them on whatever it is they’re looking at us for,” he said.

“I take part in all of those. You’ll find in a lot of convention bureaus that’s the job of a sales manager. I want to be part of those. I want to sit down with the customer and sell just as hard as the sales manager.”

If you’re wondering where Napoleon is, it’s roughly halfway between Fort Wayne and Toledo on Route 24, which runs along the Maumee River in northwest Ohio. The Small family is fairly well known in Napoleon, as Doug’s brother Andy is serving his third term as mayor of that city. His uncle, Ed Yeager, is a past mayor of Napoleon, and Doug’s immediate family makes up a good portion of the city’s population all by itself.

“I’m the 10th of 14 children. What I also think is rare in today’s world is all of us get along like best friends,” he said.

Because most of the Smalls and his extended family members live in the region, coming to Michigan was like going home.

“From a personal standpoint, I knew where I wanted to end my career. At the same time, I’ve worked really hard over the last 26 years to develop a reputation in the industry and learn to love the industry, and I just didn’t want to go to any city just to get back home. It had to be a city with a tremendous upside,” he said.

“I think Grand Rapids is that city.”

Doug married his high-school sweetheart, Kim, and they have a daughter, Alexandra, who is 8 years old. The Smalls recently moved into their Grand Rapids Township home.

“Kim works harder than I do because she is a stay-at-home mom,” said Small.

During his free time, Small spends time with his wife and daughter and watches golf and college football on the TV. But when Kim and Alexandra need to find him, they first check the kitchen because he loves to cook. He called himself a frustrated chef and said if he had “any guts” he’d open a restaurant.

“I spend as much time looking for knives as most men do looking for screwdrivers,” he said. “So my perfect time off, if you will, is with my family and me in the kitchen. I love to cook.”

Having just started his new job and having brought Kim and Alexandra here from Denver just over a week ago, Small is still getting acclimated to his new surroundings. He hasn’t had enough free time to get as involved with the city as he’d like to, but finding the time to do that is definitely at the top of his to-do list.

“I plan to join the Rotary and others. I just haven’t gotten my feet on the ground yet. I don’t want people to think this guy’s just not community involved — I am. I just haven’t had a chance to really jump in and get involved with the Econ Club and several other committees and boards. But I certainly plan to,” he said.

Another thing Small plans to do next year is to tell the story of Grand Rapids over and over again to anyone and everyone who will listen to him, a city that he said was wonderful to represent.

“Certainly people in Grand Rapids, both public and private, years ago envisioned a great city. They came together collaboratively and they built a great city. Now we need to act like one, and I think that’s my biggest challenge. And I mean that as: There is a story to be told,” he said.

“We have this great infrastructure. We all have a great spirit about us. It’s time to get a little swagger and go out there and talk the talk about Grand Rapids.

“So for the next year I’m going to be on the streets. I can’t afford to do the advertising that my competitors can. So we’re going to do it the old-fashioned way, and that is getting out and telling our story.”

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