Alex Michaels knows from first-hand experience Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, is a great place to grow up. But he admits that his teenage self never saw the region—comprised of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton—as a particularly desirable destination, let alone what might be his career’s final destination.
Yet Michaels is now back home, having officially become Discover Lehigh Valley’s president and CEO on Oct. 1. As he settles into his new home, one fact is obvious: This is not his father’s valley anymore.
In the past 30 years, the region between Philadelphia and New York has exploded. What was an area built around steel has shown its metal in urban redevelopment. The arts and culture scene is massive, amplified by Musikfest, the country’s largest free music festival held each August in Bethlehem.
“How do we get that exposure to other states?” Michaels rhetorically asks. Anyone who knows the CVB veteran knows he already has more than a few ideas. “People will be blown away when they see the valley and what it has to offer.”
Michaels fell in love in Lehigh Valley. He met his wife at East Stroudsburg University in 1990. “Like most people who lived in Lehigh Valley at the time, we didn't see our community as a place people would come for as a destination,” he recalls.
And so he and his wife began what evolved into a nationwide path back to their roots. Michaels’ resume includes impressive CVB stops at Disney, Daytona and Jacksonville, Fla., and most recently, Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Little did he know at the time, leaving the valley—the one who got away, as it were—made him the ideal candidate when the destination marketing organization’s top job opened up.
“We knew in for a challenge to find someone who was both local but had been to other even larger markets preferably,” says Kassie Hilgert, president and chief executive officer of ArtsQuest and chair of Discover Lehigh Valley’s board of directors. “Alex was a very unique individual that had both of those attributes.”
Just as Michaels is a different person than when he left—experience with the U.S. Navy and raising a daughter will do that to you—the valley is in a far different, and arguably, far better place.
“Everything has changed from a tourism perspective since he last lived here,” says Hilgert.
A month before assuming the new job, Michaels and his wife moved back. Like a long lost love, Michaels knows he needs to reintroduce himself.
“I’m amazed at transformation in the past 30 years,” he says. “Things that communities can only dream about have happened there.”
He has a leg up knowing the geography and local lingo. But where once stood a renowned steel plant is now a SteelStacks, 10-acre events campus. And just as the factory was the lifeblood of the community, so, too, is SteelStacks, which hosts more than 1,000 and eight festivals every year.
That’s just one example of the changing landscape.
The Big Picture
If Michaels has one talent in particular, it’s his ability to see the best in any situation. In the destination marketing world, that translates into focusing on what a city or region has versus what would be a good addition down the road.
For example, Michaels helped achieve a mountain bike certification at Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the CVB representing Roanoke and its surrounding communities. Anyone visiting that region could see it is picturesque and filled with great biking trails. What sets Michaels apart is he saw an opportunity to draw attention to the region and lure more cycling events.
“It took someone like Alex to see there is a way to attract more people to what you are already doing,” says Hilgert. “Bringing best practices from destinations like Jacksonville and Roanoke to the valley will be a huge asset for us.”
For his part, Michaels says he is constantly learning and observing. Before accepting the job at Discover Lehigh Valley, he and his wife compared the area to the Blue Ridge. “I almost feel that the Blue Ridge is Lehigh Valley 30 years ago,” he says. “I’ve learned that even at a small community, you can drive big business and national conventions.”
Spreading the Word
ArtsQuest alone hosts 4,000 camps, concerts and events per year. Musikfest draws about 1 million visitors. There are top-flight facilities for AAA baseball and minor league hockey. Easton hosts the PA Bacon Fest and country’s longest continually running open-air farmer’s market (established in 1752).
In short, Lehigh Valley is not hurting on inventory. But it’s positioned for more growth, especially when factoring in its proximity to Philadelphia and New York. Don’t bother asking Michaels what groups make a good fit in the valley—his enthusiasm and salesmanship get the best of him.
“There are opportunities for corporate groups, medical groups, educational groups, religious groups, financial groups,” he rattles off. “We have more meeting space than people even realize.”
It’s that last part that Michaels will hone in on. Much of his job is going to be spreading the word, inviting planners and media on FAM trips and attending industry conferences like Connect.
He has no plans to disappear into the shadows now that he is finally a president of a CVB. “I’ve always been a hands-on person,” acknowledges Michaels. “I’m going to want to be out there.”
Yet there are differences between serving as a vice president of sales—a position he has excelled in—and assuming the title of president and CEO. “I will approach things a little differently, maybe little more methodically,” he says. “Sales people tend to react quickly and make decisions fast. I need to look at greater interest of the organization and make sure I am making fiscally responsible decisions.”
The fact he is back in Pennsylvania only reinforces the importance of his position. The prodigal son is back with a chance to take a good product and make it even better.
“It gives you a whole different level of responsibility and level of passion toward it,” he says of being back in the valley. “I am just bursting with energy to get there and be back home.”