Thursday, July 25, 2024

Nourishing Demand

Experience Grand Rapids’ Doug Small is all about the food

By Kathy Gibbons

Doug Small is a self-described foodie. As president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids for nearly 16 years, he feels strongly that the local food scene is front and center when it comes to attracting tourists and groups. He also loves to cook.

“I always say that when I travel and when I talk to friends who travel, we all tend to talk about our culinary experiences when we come home—not the pillows on our bed,” Small says. “Food is a big part of the travel economy.”

Experience Grand Rapids’ Doug Small knows food is a huge part of the local economy. || Photo by Brian Kelly

Before Small came to Grand Rapids, he was working in Denver, Colorado, where a restaurant week had been instituted to elevate the local food scene. “When I came to Grand Rapids, I allowed myself to look and listen for a while and realized there was nobody pushing the food scene,” he says.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to do that,’ and we created restaurant week here.” Other efforts like special promotions that encourage people to sample the area’s food and craft beers also have helped add to the buzz, he says.

Not a week goes by that there isn’t an announcement of a new restaurant opening around the Grand Rapids region, Small says, and he himself can be found out and about sampling various cuisines, posting photos, and sharing his experiences on his personal Facebook page.

When Small came to Grand Rapids, the county’s room revenue was at $98 million. Fifteen years and about 4,000 additional hotel rooms later, revenue had reached $253 million. He credits the local food scene with helping grow that number.

“Most of our meeting executives who come in for a site inspection before deciding, we certainly take them out to our great local restaurants and let them see for themselves,” Small says. It doesn’t hurt that the AAA Four-Diamond downtown adjoining properties JW Marriott Grand Rapids and Amway Grand Plaza, Curio Collection by Hilton, also handle catering for Grand Rapids’ flagship convention center, DeVos Place.

Back home in his own kitchen, Small is always experimenting. He especially loves creating different pastas. And when he discovers new recipes, he tweaks and makes them his own. That’s fine with his wife—and has been since early on in their 40-year marriage. “My wife says she hates being in the kitchen,” he says. “I say, ‘I’ll take it.’