Serendipity publisher travels path that leads back home
Kasie Smith's glossy magazines are well known in niche markets throughout the U.S. and Canada, and her Grand Rapids-based company has been growing for 10 years, but Serendipity Media isn't exactly a household name in the West Michigan business community.
That is probably going to change, because her first magazine specific to West Michigan has been online since Jan. 5, and the print version will appear in August. West Michigan Woman is billed as a "lifestyle source" for influential professional women — which sort of sums up Kasie Smith.
Smith has enough influence, for example, to bring the reigning Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler, to Grand Rapids. Kaeppeler visited the Grand Rapids Montessori Academy in early March to speak to students there, and then spoke at the YMCA LOOP Afterschool program at the academy. Kaeppeler is spending her year of service touring the country to encourage young people to pursue a college education, and sharing her passion for the arts and also for "STEM" education: science, technology, engineering and math. The Miss America Organization efforts mirror the national movement to teach STEM curricula outside traditional school settings, targeting female students who are currently under-represented in STEM professions.
Smith has had some noteworthy experience of her own with beauty pageants. She was a contestant three times in the Miss Michigan pageant, finishing in the top 10 in 1992 and 1996, and as fourth runner up in 1995. Scholarships and financial aid she received in the course of the competitions paid for her college education, and the interviewing and public speaking skills she acquired as a contestant "have helped me through my entire career," she said.
Smith, whose first name is pronounced "K.C.," grew up in Traverse City, attending Central High School there, and then Albion College, where she earned a B.A. in psychology. Admitting that makes her laugh, but studying psychology turned out to be a good idea.
"I think psychology is the best possible degree I could have," she said, helping her bring together all the diverse skill sets that make up a publishing company.
She left Jenny Craig in 1999, but only because a personal issue caused her to seek major changes in her life. "I loved working there," she said, adding that she cried when she decided to leave her job.
She then went to work as national sales manager for Group Tour Magazine, a trade publication based in Holland. In 2002, she was a member of the management team there, planning new directions for the magazine. Some changes in top management led to the conclusion that the plans would not be implemented, so she and another employee decided to leave the company and start their own publication.
That was the beginning of Serendipity Publishing and its first publication, Packaged Travel Insider, a trade magazine for the group tour industry. That publication is still going strong, but the name changed recently to Groups Today.
She bluntly confesses that up to then, she was one of those people who had no interest in owning their own business. "I never realized marketing and publishing was my calling," she said.
Smith is now sole proprietor of Serendipity Media. The corporate name changed recently to reflect its expanded scope beyond print publications alone.
The group tour industry is reflected in the thousands of big motorcoaches seen on the road throughout the U.S. and Canada, delivering key chunks of their markets to major "attractions," ranging from casinos to national parks, museums, theaters, historical sites, and hundreds of famous tourist areas across the country.
According to an economic impact study by the American Bus Association Foundation, in 2009, Michigan alone had almost 15,000 jobs involving the motorcoach tour business and its suppliers: hotel/lodging, eating and drinking places, entertainment and amusement, and retail. The total value of the cash flow was more than $1 billion. In Greater Grand Rapids, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the Gerald R. Ford Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum are among the major attractions frequented by the group tour industry.
The growing number of baby boomers now retiring just adds fuel to the group tour industry, and there is another well-established group tour niche: young travelers, mainly organized by churches and schools. In 2005, Serendipity launched its second publication when it won the contract to produce Teach & Travel, the official magazine of SYTA — Student/Youth Travel Association — a nonprofit, professional trade association that promotes student and youth travel.
"We do a lot of contract publishing work," said Smith, which has proved to be a busy niche for Serendipity. In addition to Teach & Travel, Serendipity publishes Agent Life, the official publication of the National Association of Career Travel Agents; and AfterSchool Today, the official publication of the National AfterSchool Association.
2005 through 2008 were busy years at Serendipity: Fourpoints was launched in 2005, a glossy, high-end magazine for contestants, volunteers and fans of the Miss America and Miss America Outstanding Teen organizations. Two new Serendipity publications appeared in 2008. Agent Life is aimed at home-based independent travel agents; Broadway Spotlight goes to 300,000 consumers who are either active group travelers or independent individual travelers who patronize Broadway shows in New York. Broadway Spotlight is customized for the clientele of several specific major theater travel companies, with the front and back covers containing editorial from those companies.
AfterSchool Today was launched in 2010 for professionals involved in the many afterschool programs available for kids across the country.
Serendipity owns and manages five websites and produces seven electronic newsletters for various types of memberships. The firm also uses Facebook and Twitter to stay in close touch with its young female audience.
"We actually have more (electronic) followers on a regular basis than print subscribers," said Smith — an estimated 2.5 million e-followers.
"I love what I do," she said. "I happen to be one of those people who thoroughly loves to work," and she especially appreciates the dedication of her 13-person staff, who write and edit most of the publications produced by Serendipity. That love of her work and her close relationship with her staff have made it easy for her to hold would-be investors and others proposing mergers or buyouts at arm's length.
About two and a half years ago, a pair of major changes took place in the lives of Kasie and her husband, Jason Smith, whom she married in 2008. Smith was off work for about six months for the birth of their twin boys, Jackson and Spencer.
"Coming back to work was really difficult," she said, a situation familiar to millions of working mothers. But the staff at Serendipity headquarters off Cascade Road didn't let her down when she needed them most.
"I have a tremendous team here. They stepped up and made sure everything got taken care of when I was absent," she said.