Inside Track: A knack for hospitality blossomed into marketing Tulip City
Sally Laukitis, executive director of Holland CVB, loves the connections that bridge her community and its visitors.
For more than 22 years, Sally Laukitis has welcomed travelers who come through her office door in downtown Holland looking for information, and for 12 and a half of those years, her pug Lucy — the unofficial Holland mascot — has drawn a following all her own.
“We actually had overnight visitations because of Lucy,” said Laukitis. “This family called me about a year and a half ago from Canada on their way to Chicago. They booked a room in the height of summer and needed to be on their way by 9 o’clock that Saturday morning, so at 8 o’clock, Lucy and I were downtown and met these people.”
Those stories and connections are part of the reason Laukitis loves her job as executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We like to call that Dutch bingo,” said Laukitis. “Everyone has a story, and I love to find people’s stories and figure out how they are connected — seven degrees of separation and all that.”
Although Laukitis has been with the Holland CVB since 1992 and executive director since 1994, she began her foray into the workforce in high school as a tour guide for Windmill Island Gardens. The 36-acre island is home to more than 100,000 tulips and the DeZwaan Dutch windmill.
“For some reason, my parents bought us a moped,” said Laukitis. “I would put my Dutch costume and my wooden shoes on, and I would ride my little moped down to Windmill Island and give tours.”
She went on to study at DePauw State University in Greencastle, Indiana, and abroad at Wilhelm Ludwigs Universitat in Freiburg, Germany, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in American literature. It was while studying in Germany that Laukitis discovered a love of travel; she worked for Eastern Air Lines as a flight attendant for seven years, based out of Atlanta and then Chicago.
“It was fun. I would save all my money and then I would take a trip and I would come back broke,” said Laukitis.
It was after she moved back to Holland and had a chance encounter with restaurateur Dick Den Uyl, who owned Point West Inn, The Hatch and the 8th Street Grille, when Laukitis became involved with the Holland CVB.
“He was on the CVB board at the time and said the CVB was looking for a salesperson. I had a lot of hospitality experience from the airlines, so I interviewed for the position with Tulip Time and the CVB and was fortunate enough to get the job, and the rest just happened,” said Laukitis.
“In ’94, they were looking for a new director, and I have been here ever since.”
The Holland CVB was founded in 1985 after Public Act 59 of 1984 was passed, and the Holland Chamber of Commerce began focusing on economic development in the area, according to Laukitis. The CVB’s original “office” was a trailer parked on the side of U.S. 31 and 16th Street in Holland.
“When I was hired in 1992, we had one director, and I was actually 60 percent Visitor Bureau and 40 percent Tulip Time,” said Laukitis. “In reality, most of our time was spent with Tulip Time because it was very all-encompassing. Then in 1994, the two organizations decided it made more sense for each of them to have their own director.”
When Laukitis transitioned into the executive director role for the Holland CVB in 1994, she was the only employee and had an office at 100 E. 8th St. near the Knickerbocker Theatre. Armed with three brown rotary-dial phones, three banquet tables and a handwritten ledger, Laukitis oversaw a budget of $189,000 and an assessment area comprised of 750 hotel rooms.
“I would go home at night and I would literally handwrite entries into the ledger because we didn’t have the computers at that point,” said Laukitis.
Since 1994, the Holland CVB has grown to a staff of seven employees and three volunteers, and a budget of $1.6 million based on a 5 percent room assessment of 1,650 hotel rooms in the Holland area.
“I have a great board of directors. My board decided in 2010-2011 that we would talk to our hotels and see if they were comfortable raising the room assessment from 2 percent to 5 percent,” said Laukitis. “We laid out what we could do if we tripled our budget.”
Other than paying staff and maintaining its physical location, revenue from the room assessment is allocated toward marketing the Holland area as an “overnight destination,” according to Laukitis. The Holland CVB produces billboards, TV and radio commercials, print advertising, visitor guides and relocation packets, and has sent out print surveys twice a year for more than 20 years to compile demographic data on visitors to the area.
“We have probably 27 to 28 percent of the surveys returned,” said Laukitis. “We have really good data in terms of how old the people are, how long they are staying, who they are travelling with, what they want to see and do and where they are from.”
The organization partnered with Travel Michigan through its matching partner program to secure $400,000 toward TV advertising in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.
While the Tulip Time Festival is a big attraction for the area, Laukitis said a large part of the tourism business at this time of year is corporate and sports visitors. Companies such as Haworth, Trendway, Gentex and Herman Miller, and sporting events like swim meets, gymnastics competitions and hockey games also bring tourism business to Holland.
“The thing I’ve learned is tourism is very different. It is not the face of mom and dad and two kids in the back of the minivan going off to see a site, but it is sports tourism, corporate tourism, it is motor coach tourism, it is car clubs … and another huge part of our tourism is Hope College,” said Laukitis. “Hope College runs 33,000 kids through their summer camps.”
When asked about her favorite part of her job, Laukitis said she loves all of it: from meeting international visitors from some 48 countries in the past four years to sharing the history of the community.
“It is part of my job to know about the community, know the history of the community, know kind of what makes the community tick — and I love that, having grown up here,” said Laukitis. “My mom’s family moved here in 1933 and they were not Dutch. They stayed and became very involved in the community.”
As Laukitis has watched downtown Holland evolve, she said one of the biggest changes came in the 1980s when the city took a risk and installed a snowmelt system for downtown sidewalks, and the Prince family purchased a number of storefronts and had them re-faced.
At the time, the Westshore Mall was being developed on the north side of town, and the downtown area “could have died like a lot of towns were dying.”
“There was this group of people who said ‘we don’t want downtown to die,’ and I think the biggest change has been watching that but then watching the passion and the strategic visioning of the city to continue to move that forward,” said Laukitis.