With its natural bounty and choice venues, Michigan has much to offer the meetings and events industry. Still, it takes passionate believers to spread this gospel. Three of the state's biggest advocates not only promote tourism, travel, conferences, and events, but are dedicated to changing people's mindsets and creating new opportunities to collaborate, all while helping local communities thrive. With the industry's best interests at heart, here are three professionals definitely worth getting to know.
RENEE LEWIS, CMP
Former executive director, Detroit Local Organizing Committee
2015 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition; president, Infinity Management Group
Renee Lewis recently wrapped up what might be the most important industry event ever held in Michigan.
The American Society of Association Executives’ annual convention and exhibition in August brought 5,400 professionals—more than half of them association executives who book and organize meetings for their members—to Detroit, most of them for the first time. As a result, the region could see a significant jump in meeting bookings over the next five years.
The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau (DMCVB) hired Lewis to lead the effort to showcase the host city and the newly renovated Cobo Center. Lewis left her career of nearly 14 years at the American Concrete Institute in Farmington Hills to take on the organizing committee job. During the two-year project, she coordinated more than 20 volunteer committees, worked with ASAE staff, developed service projects, solicited sponsorships, and organized three evening receptions and 14 educational and destination tours, among other duties.
Changing visitors’ perceptions of the region was her most important task, she says. Eighty-six percent of attendees had never held a meeting in Detroit, and most either had negative impressions of the city or no idea what to expect. They were surprised by how safe and vibrant downtown and Midtown are and by the friendly, helpful people they met during their stay, Lewis says.
“We can make all kinds of renovations to the city and build new things, but it’s the people who help bring other people back, and make them feel comfortable and welcome,” she says. “That helped change the perception.”
Feedback has been good: Most attendees left thinking something different and positive about Detroit, says Lewis, who gives the credit to her staff, industry volunteers and the DMCVB. Being able to change the conversation about the city was the biggest success, she says.
In 22 years of event planning, Lewis says she has learned something from every event, and her biggest takeaway from the ASAE conference was the importance of communication. “The better the communicator you can become, the better you’ll be as a planner,” she says. “You can’t communicate enough.”
Lewis also urged planners and CVBs to get to know each other better. CVBs have connections to the local community that can help planners create a better experience for attendees. And, the more a CVB understands a client and its industry and attendees, the more likely it’ll get the group’s business, so do your research, she suggests.
Lewis, who is completing her Certified Association Executive and Certification in Meetings Management designations, has started her own event management company with partner Liz Swanson, CMP. With the ASAE conference behind her, Lewis is directing her efforts toward growing and diversifying the company.
FUN FACT » While she says she’d take on the ASAE host city job again in a heartbeat, Lewis also says she is grateful to return to a more balanced life that includes kayaking, gardening, and listening to electronic and techno music.
BIG DEALS BY THE NUMBERS
$22.8 BILLION spent by visitors on lodging, food and beverage, recreation and entertainment, and transportation in the state last year.
$500 MILLION estimated economic boom for the region from meetings booked by ASAE members over the next 10 years.
113.4 MILLION visitors to Michigan in 2014, an increase of 3.8 percent over the previous year and a record.
2,800+ association executives who plan and book meetings and attended
the 2015 American Society of Association Executives annual conference in Detroit.
1,000+ attendees at the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism, an annual pow-wow of networking, collaboration, assessments and forecasts.
$6.87 returned on each dollar spent for Pure Michigan’s out-of-state advertising campaign.
Vice president, Travel Michigan, Michigan Economic Development Corp.
It’s hard to believe the iconic Pure Michigan campaign is celebrating only its 10th anniversary in 2016. “That’s the story of good branding,” says Dave Lorenz, part of the team that developed the campaign. “It’s amazing if you get it right; it feels like it was always there.”
But don’t expect the team behind the award-winning campaign to rest on its laurels under Lorenz, who took over the top spot at Travel Michigan in July after 13 years at the organization.
“We have to constantly be looking for the newer and better ways to do things,” he says. To adjust to changing times and consumers, the Pure Michigan brand must evolve, and collaboration with state travel partners will play a big role.
“We have a very good, very talented travel industry; I just don’t think we tap into those resources enough,” says Lorenz, who previously spent nine years at Meijer Corp, primarily as the collaborative marketing manager.
Among those resources is the city of Detroit itself. Lorenz encourages industry folks to recognize that it really is a comeback city that deserves praise.
Lorenz, a member of the host committee for the American Society of Association Executives conference in August, commended the city for inviting communities around the state to get involved in the event.
“I was not aware of that being done before, where a community hosting a huge event that costs it tons of money went out of its way to invite other communities to showcase their towns,” he says. Similarly, his team is reaching out to industry people to see what initiatives might be expanded to statewide. Travel Michigan also will focus on helping communities bring more conferences and meetings to the state.
“If you’re just imaginative and go out of your way to try harder, you can do amazing things,” he says. “[Tourism] is all about retaining and building jobs [and] helping communities grow and prosper,” he adds. “So it’s personal; it’s not just a job.”
In fact, Lorenz, a Cloverville native, turned down a top travel director job a few years back because he just couldn’t leave the state he loves.
“The biggest honor is having been chosen to work for the people of Michigan,” he says.
FUN FACT » Lorenz, a former radio personality, once flunked his high school speech class. “I was devastated because I had to take that darn class again, and now one could say I speak for a living,” he says, laughing.
President and CEO, Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association
When asked to share his greatest achievement, Steve Yencich emphatically points to one event that he worked on as part of a team.
“The Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism is by far one of the things I look back on with great pride,” he says. “To have grown that event over the course of the past 10 years, through some of the worst times our industry and our state has seen, is gratifying, indeed.”
Yencich credits his meeting planner colleagues for their efforts to build the event, from 275 attendees in 2006 to more than 1,000 in 2015.
The Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association (MLTA) produces the conference in conjunction with Travel Michigan and Michigan State University. The three groups once held separate tourism meetings; merging those events brought diverse industry segments together, Yencich says: “All the synergies that flowed from that have been nothing but positive.”
“The key to the success of this event, and any event, is to continually be open to new ideas and to take risks,” he says. Excellence, he adds, is “always listening” and not making the same mistake twice.
Yencich wants to continue to grow the conference. (The 2016 Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism will feature Mark Hollis, athletics director for Michigan State University, as its keynote speaker.) Its proceeds support Lansingbased advocacy programs that benefit the meetings, lodging and tourism industry statewide: MLTA has helped secure more than $100 million in funding for the Pure Michigan campaign since 2006, and in 2005, it successfully lobbied for legislation that requires schools to start classes after Labor Day so families can take summer-end vacations.
Yencich celebrated 15 years at MLTA in October. Previously, he worked 15 years for the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents. (“Once I show up, I’m kind of hard to get rid of,” he says.)
His affinity for working MLTA members is easy to explain, he says: “Their No. 1 goal is simply to ensure people have a good time. By the very nature of that, they have to have a personality that is hospitable, which makes them great to work with and for.”
FUN FACT » Yencich is a jokester. Every report card growing up mentioned this—either in a positive or negative context. "I think if you go through the day without a smile, without having fun, you are less productive and so is your staff," he says. "I never miss an opportunity to have fun and encourage other people to do likewise."