CVB director brings Chicagos influence to other shore

December 5, 2011
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Bob Lukens’ roots are on the other side of the Big Lake, but when the new community development director for Muskegon County moved here in October, he started seeing people and places that reminded him of home, making his new job a lot easier.

“Muskegon County is similar to where I lived, on Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs, which are former heavy-industry hubs that have seen their manufacturing base change. The jobs that have taken their place are much more technical, highly skilled positions that require an educated work force. From what I’ve seen, this is very similar to West Michigan,” he said.

“I’m also encouraged that West Michigan and the Muskegon County region have a substantial need to fill engineering positions, a very good sign for the state economy,” added Lukens.

The Muskegon County community development director has administrative responsibility for the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau, where the job is located, plus administrative responsibility for the Muskegon County Airport and the Muskegon Area Transit System, reporting to the county administrator and the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners.

According to Lukens, the director develops and implements strategies, initiatives and goals for the CVB, airport and transit system, and works with countywide organizations and businesses to increase awareness of Muskegon County as a tourism and meeting/event destination, and a location for business start-up or relocation.

As the former public relations manager for the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau, Lukens ran the official destination marketing organization for Chicago’s 61 south and southwest suburbs. His goal is to replicate that level of knowledge and insight in regard to Muskegon County.

Lukens was born in Chicago and grew up in the South Shore and Beverly neighborhoods. After high school, he began taking classes at community colleges while working, and soon was living downtown. His first real job was downtown as a mail clerk at the Tatham-Laird & Kudner advertising agency (now known as Euro RSCG Chicago), but that mailroom job soon morphed into something more exciting: Lukens was asked to serve as private chauffeur for the chief operating officer, Charlotte Beers.

Advertising Age describes Beers as “a brilliant strategic thinker” who became the world’s highest-ranked woman in advertising, eventually serving as the chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and later, chairman of J. Walter Thompson. From 2001 until 2003, she worked for the Bush administration as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the wake of the attacks of 9/11.

Lukens said Beers was “probably the most high-energy woman I ever met in my life.” While driving her around Chicago for two or three years, he said, he had a unique opportunity to see how big business and big advertising agencies operate.

For a guy in his early 20s, “it was a wonderful experience,” according to Lukens, but he knew he didn’t want to be a chauffeur for the rest of his life. He got serious about his education and eventually earned a degree in journalism at Western Illinois University in 1989.

With degree in hand, Lukens went to work for the next eight years for a large weekly newspaper that covered Chicago’s South Side, where he was editor, reporter and photographer.

“I pretty much ran the show as far as editorial went,” he said.

Alas, the compensation was nothing to write home about. When the Lukens’ third child was on the way, his wife, Christine, suggested it might be a good idea if he looked for a job where he could make more money to support his growing family.

Public relations work is a natural transition for many journalists, and Lukens soon found a job in PR at the Chicago Southland CVB, where he spent the next 13 years and “really fell in love” with marketing the tourism/convention industry.

Over the years, the Lukens family enjoyed many vacations on the southwest Michigan shoreline. They were familiar with the beach towns as far north as Holland, but Muskegon was all new to Lukens when he came for his interview with Muskegon County officials late in the summer.

As head of the CVB, the biggest challenge is already apparent to Lukens: bringing leisure travelers and meetings/conventions to the area from late fall to early spring.

Lukens said when he saw the job posting for the position he now holds, he was really focused on a leadership role at a CVB, although he was soon made aware it also included responsibility for a municipal transit system and an airport. He said he didn’t have much experience with either but is “very fortunate to have professional managers of both systems in Muskegon County. They have been extremely helpful in bringing me up to speed on airport and ground transit issues.”

The Muskegon County Airport has a $2.2 million annual budget, with most revenue derived from user fees for things such as hangar rental, parking lots and landing fees. It employs nine people full time and two seasonal workers for winter snow removal, plus a part-time accounting clerk and a contracted employee for marketing/fares/passenger logistics. The current fiscal year air-carrier ridership is estimated to reach more than 29,000 passengers, with two daily flights to Chicago O’Hare on United Airlines.

The Muskegon Area Transit System currently has an operating budget of $3.9 million and employs 55. In the last fiscal year, it provided 739,283 passenger trips. The MATS bus trolley is most active during the summer months when vacationers visit Muskegon and the surrounding beach communities.

The intrinsic links between the CVB and the airport and ground transit systems are clear: United Airlines helps get vacationers and conventioneers here, MATS helps gets them around town, and the CVB’s job is made easier.

Muskegon received some bad news late last summer when it was announced that Summer Celebration would not repeat next year, after years of luring huge throngs to hear live music several weekends in a row.

“That was an important festival for the community,” said Lukens. “It brought a lot of visitors into the area, filled our hotel rooms and provided a lot of retail and restaurant traffic into the area. I think we’ll come up with a viable solution in the future.”

But Muskegon still has lots of other big attractions. Bike Time draws tens of thousands of leather-clad bikers on big motorcycles to downtown Muskegon and the Muskegon Lake waterfront, plus many more thousands of tourists to gawk at the bikes — and it keeps getting bigger each year.

If the kids get bored, mom and dad can take them to the Michigan’s Adventure amusement park just north of Muskegon. Or maybe there is a concert or stage event in the elegant, restored Frauenthal Theater. Or a tour of the historic U.S.S. Silversides World War II submarine at the new Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum on the Muskegon Lake channel into Lake Michigan.

“We have an amazing ability to host sports here,” said Lukens, including events at the L.C. Walker Arena and the winter sports complex on Lake Michigan.

One of the region’s most potent resources is its business community, according to Lukens, which helps make the recreational activities possible.

“Muskegon County has a very active business community, vested in the success of the entire region. It’s really remarkable how people here step up and donate their time and money to move the region forward,” said Lukens.

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