Brian Persky thought he would become a teacher, as his parents had. He majored in geography, with an Earth science minor, and got a bachelor’s degree in secondary education at Western Michigan University. He also did student teaching, but an internship at Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. in a totally different realm — community planning — inspired him to do a 180.
“All I knew at that time was teaching, but I loved geography and social studies and took an internship with Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. which opened up my eyes to other things I could do with that major,” says the 38-year-old who grew up in Grandville. “I learned that I loved building relationships and working with downtown businesses, and that’s where I grew my strongest roots to Kalamazoo. I loved my student teaching and I still stay in touch with some of the kids that I taught, but when it came down to making a choice, I had more of a passion for this.”
“This” is generating business for Kalamazoo County by bringing visitors to the county through meetings, conventions and sporting events. Before becoming the director of business development at Discover Kalamazoo, Persky was the director of sports development for the organization.
How did you get where you are today?
I was at DKI for six years with my internship and my full-time role after that internship. In 2014 I was thinking about my next career step and was approached about a full-time director position in Three Rivers’ downtown development program
At the time I was like, “Am I ready for that? I’ve only been in this career for four or five years, and I’m still learning.” But I was ready for the next challenge and wanted to put my skills to the test. I was there for about a year and a half until, similarly, somebody called me and said, “Hey, we have a role here that you would be great for.” It was the sports event development manager role at Discover Kalamazoo.
I started at Discover Kalamazoo in December 2015 and, after about two-and-a-half years, was promoted to director of sports event development. Then in November 2022 I was elevated to director of business development.
What do you like about what you do?
I know it sounds cliché, but the people that we work with. One of my favorite things about Kalamazoo is that we punch above our weight for everything. We host some really unique events here that a lot of communities our size can’t host. That’s because of the people that run these organizations and the passion that they have. Our job is to support and uplift them and give them the ability to continue hosting. That’s a lot of fun to me.
The other thing that I enjoy the most about Discover Kalamazoo is our team. It’s a fun challenge for me to have five or six people that I oversee, mentor and coach as we work on getting that next wave of business to Kalamazoo.
What is that ‘next wave’?
Above everything, we need to diversify our business. We have five sports — ice hockey, ice skating, soccer, tennis and wrestling — that have been 85 to 90 percent of our sports business here, and we’re really grateful for those events that have become staples in those sports communities. But it’s also problematic because if one of them goes away, that’s a huge chunk of our business that we can’t get back. Or if we have a facility close, we need to look at what else is out there and the facilities we can use to bring new business here. That’s true on the meeting side as well. What are the next emerging markets? We have a huge convention at the Radisson called Dodidokon that has grown over the years, so what’s the next Dodidokon?
What keeps you up at night?
Our aging facilities in Kalamazoo. We are in need of new, modern facilities and venues in order to attract those new diverse events that we’re looking for.
I think the event center downtown is going to be a great addition. The study that showed a demand for a downtown event center also uncovered the need for a separate indoor amateur and youth sports facility in the area, primarily for basketball and volleyball. They are the two indoor sports that have the highest level of participation in the country and in the Midwest by a landslide. We have strong basketball and volleyball communities here, but in many cases they’re leaving our community to do tournaments and are having a hard time finding court time in Kalamazoo.
What do you say when you are trying to convince people to bring their event to Kalamazoo?
A lot of times the destination sells itself. When we get somebody to visit Kalamazoo, our chance of getting their event here increases dramatically once they see downtown and everything the community has to offer. We are a very family-friendly destination. If you have a sports event or a convention where you’re bringing your family, there’s a ton to do here when you’re not at that meeting or competition. If you’re an outdoors person, we have great trails, and we have many museums that cities our size don’t have, like the Air Zoo and the Gilmore Car Museu
The other thing we tell people is that when you go to a bigger market, you get lost in the shuffle. There might be five or six other major events going on, and people may not hear about yours. But when a thousand extra people are in Kalamazoo, it really stands out and people know that you’re here.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity