Greg Ayers is always thinking about the next thing. The next convention, the next sporting event, the next museum exhibit or other happening that will bring visitors to the greater Kalamazoo area.
“People would be surprised that we are working on events right now that are all the way out to 2025,” says Ayers, who oversees Discover Kalamazoo, which promotes tourism for Kalamazoo County and a little beyond.
It’s Discover Kalamazoo that is responsible for enticing both visitors and residents to experience the area’s wealth of attractions, events and activities. In advertising and marketing the area as a destination to tourists, Ayers says, the organization focuses on luring not only large groups and events, but the “simplest of groups, like a couple or family looking to visit the area for a few days.”
“We’ve done an excellent job as a community working together to get Kalamazoo on the map,” Ayers says, “but the compliments and comments we get from people who visit the area or who organize groups to come to the area are what tell us we’re succeeding.”
How did you end up here?
Discover Kalamazoo is my third convention and visitors’ bureau position. After graduating from college at Illinois State University in Normal, I worked in minor league baseball, with the Peoria Chiefs, who are in the same league with the West Michigan Whitecaps and Lansing Lugnuts. I was there for just over four years, and then I went back to Normal to work at the Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for three and half years. I then became executive director for the South Bend-Mishawaka Convention and Visitors Bureau and was there eight-and-a-half years when I was recruited to come to Kalamazoo.
What enticed me about the position here was that the organization had just split from the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce and I had the chance to be the first president and CEO under the new structure. Last August was my 10-year anniversary.
What attracted you to this field?
Sports is my background and that’s what I had been around, but the opportunity to promote sports as well as a whole lot of other things was really inviting. I have done this kind of work in three really great communities where there is a lot of great product. I can’t imagine doing this in a community that doesn’t have higher education as part of its fabric, as has been the case in all three communities I’ve worked in. With colleges and universities, there’s always something going on. There’s always activity and events to look forward to and an influx of people coming and going. There’s always a next something to look forward to.
What’s behind the name Discover Kalamazoo?
Our legal name is the Kalamazoo County Convention and Visitors Bureau, but we went through some branding and strategic planning and decided to create a Michigan DBA (Doing Business As) as Discover Kalamazoo. At the time there were a lot of other bureaus in the country going in the direction of calling themselves something other than a bureau. We were the first in Michigan that went that route.
We really like the word “discover” for two reasons. We were already using the website discoverkalamazoo.com. We also think the word “discover” speaks to both visitors and residents and promotes to both audiences. We didn’t want residents to think we weren’t available to them for things to see and do in the community. So we started using the name in July 2009 and we’ve had a lot of fun with it.
What do you like most about what you do?
No two days are the same. We are always looking forward to the next event.
There is always something being developed in our community, whether it’s new bricks and mortar or new programming. Our top attractions — which we consider to be the Air Zoo, Gilmore Car Museum, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the Kalamazoo Nature Center — are always reinventing themselves, looking for another new exhibit to come in. They don’t want people to think, “I’ve visited that once. I don’t need to go back.” We are very, very fortunate for the quality of those five institutions. They rank among the best in their fields.
We love to work with WMU and have many partnerships across campus. We have a great partnership with WMU’s Office of Admissions to help recruit students to come into the community. We are told by family members of prospective students that when they’ve visited other colleges, they never saw the community. To us, it’s a high compliment.
How do you keep track of everything going on in the community?
We have a very talented team with a great skill set and great passion for our community. Our team does a lot of field trips — we go out and see something that’s brand new or just opened or some aspect of the community we aren’t as familiar with. At the end of the day, people aren’t coming to visit Discover Kalamazoo, they are coming to visit all of our places and products, and so for us it’s really critical that we stay apprised of what’s going on and when something new is happening.
What is your favorite thing to do as a tourist in your own town?
I love to play golf and we have great golf courses in our region. I also love being able to attend a variety of sporting events, anything from the Kalamazoo Wings to the Kalamazoo Growlers to the USTA Tennis Championships to curling and all the events at WMU and Kalamazoo College.
Once I came to Kalamazoo, I also became more appreciative of the arts and love Art Hop and get out as often as I can. And I will take our downtown against any other of a community our size. It’s the pulse of the community. It’s great to see all the different things happening there, from the construction to event programming.
There’s just always something to look forward to.