The Rockford that John Groh knew when he grew up is a very different place today, thanks in part to efforts made by the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
John Groh grew up in a much different Rockford in the 1980s. Entertainment was lacking. There was no Rockford City Market and no Carlson Ice Arena. There were no such things as free movies in downtown Rockford. The Coronado Theatre was desperate for a makeover, the Discovery Center had just opened and Klehm Arboretum was still just a nursery.
Fast forward 30 years later.
Rockford has become a popular travel destination, especially when it comes to youth sports. Thanks to many excellent athletic facilities, including MercyRockford Sportscore 1 and 2, the Indoor Sports Center and two hockey rinks, Rockford is host to 150 athletic events each year – from soccer and volleyball to softball tournaments. In 2004, Sports Illustrated and the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) dubbed Rockford “SportsTown USA” for the state of Illinois based on the Rockford Park District and other facilities, a tag the city still wears proudly.
Attendance at the Rockford City Market has exploded; the Friday night must-do event drew 100,000 vistors this year. In three short years, Stroll on State has become the city’s favorite holiday kickoff event, which is held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and draws more than 60,000 people annually to downtown Rockford. The list is endless.
The driving force behind so many of these successful events is the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB), an independent nonprofit that was launched in 1984 by community leaders as a way to grow the local economy by attracting visitors. Since that time, RACVB has led the region’s destination marketing and management efforts.
“The RACVB is really good at planning, marketing and executing events,” says Darrell Snorek, immediate past chairman of the RACVB board. “Anyone in town will tell you that when the RACVB does something, they do it right and they do it flawlessly.”
Last year the RACVB celebrated its 30th anniversary. In that time, the bureau has helped to move many ideas forward. More than 20 attractions and 18 hotels, not to mention many locally owned restaurants and retail shops, have opened. Visitors play an important role in supporting these organizations and businesses.
Today, a hallmark of the RACVB’s work has been partnering with key organizations to develop new products and experiences that appeal to residents and attract visitors. RACVB’s collaborative successes include the development of Davis Park and MercyRockford Sportscore 2, the restoration of Shumway Market and Memorial Hall, the opening of the Laurent House as a museum, development of Stroll on State and the Reclaiming First initiative, which includes a new 100,000 square-foot sports complex.
“I hope it will always be true that RACVB is a place where big ideas can be created, hatched and moved forward,” says Groh, the Rockford native who is now president and CEO of the RACVB. “We think big picture and long term. It’s in our DNA as an organization. A lot of people think of organizations like ours, rightly so, as sales and marketing agencies. That’s the core of what we do, but there’s more to it than that – to truly advance the community, we also need to be destination managers and architects of the visitor experience.”
“Our mission was ‘heads in beds’ to get people to town,” adds Snorek. “Then, we decided to take a different approach. Let’s do some programming. That’s a growing trend right now. If we make our people see the value in town, other people will come. When we came up with Stroll on State, we thought if we could get 5,000 or 10,000 people downtown it would be great. We had 30,000 show up the first year, 60,000 the second year and even more this year. It’s amazing how quickly it grew.”
The turning point in the RACVB’s focus came at a board retreat a couple of years ago, says Bobbie Holzwarth, the bureau’s board chair. “During that meeting it became quite clear that we needed to engage residents as well as visitors. Rockford’s a great place to visit, but it’s also a great place to live and work. Stroll on State, which was started the year before, was a perfect example of that.”
More good news is on the way. In 2016, a $24.4 million downtown sports complex will open its doors. Called the UW Health Sports Factory, the state-of-the-art facility is part of a regional effort to increase sports tourism, and it is expected to draw a half-million people a year for basketball, volleyball, wrestling and other tournaments, as well as trade shows, meetings and local users.
The UW Health Sports Factory will have eight basketball courts, or 16 volleyball courts, a restaurant with river views, meeting space and parking lots, which will add 500 new stalls to downtown parking. The facility is part of the Reclaiming First initiative, spearheaded by the Rockford Park District, City of Rockford, RACVB, and other public and private partners.
“For 30-plus weekends, we will have a couple thousand people coming to downtown Rockford with disposable income and a propensity to spend money,” says Groh. “It will create a new vibrancy for retail shops and restaurants. It’s all about creating a new economy for downtown Rockford and the region as a whole.”
By the Numbers
The RACVB was started in 1984 and grew out of a tourism and convention committee at the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. Among the founding members were then-Rockford Mayor John McNamara, Webbs Norman from the Rockford Park District and Rex Parker from the Clock Tower Resort. Wendy Perks Fisher was the bureau’s first full-time executive director.
“In 1984, our community leaders had the vision that visitors would come – and spend their money and enjoy it,” says Groh. “These individuals and organizations saw the best our region had to offer and wanted to invite the world to experience it. The organization owes its success to Wendy for her commitment to ensure we dream big for the community and that we work hard. Personally, I owe her a great deal of gratitude for hiring me at a young age, mentoring me and encouraging me to take on my career that led me on the path I’m on now.”
Tourism is big business. In 2014, Winnebago County’s tourism industry generated more than $75 million in payroll – generated by visitor spending of nearly $340 million. Last year, local sites, attractions and events welcomed more than 7.6 million guests, up from approximately 4 million in 1984.
Since 2011, the hospitality and leisure industry has led the Rockford metropolitan statistical area as the fastest-growing sector (11 percent) in job creation. Leisure and hospitality jobs are at a record level 13,900, which accounts for 9.4 percent of total jobs in the market.
“There are many levels to Rockford’s appeal,” says Groh. “There are cities that have great museums, or have great golf courses or gardens. We have all of those. We have family destinations like Magic Waters, Burpee Museum and Discovery Center. There’s a lot of depth to what we offer our residents and visitors. We have 14 million people living within a two-hour drive. Peoria, Springfield, Green Bay and Kalamazoo can’t say that. More than 60 percent of museum and gardens visitors come from outside the area. It’s exciting.”
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the RACVB created a new marketing campaign in the fall of 2014 called “In Good Company,” which featured 40 local people that make the region special and unique. The campaign will continue into 2016.
“The ‘In Good Company’ theme goes far beyond a simple marketing theme. It is truly becoming a way of life at the RACVB and throughout the community,” says Groh. “There’s a lot of authenticity here. It’s not a pretentious destination. It’s very accessible. We wanted to highlight people – Jody Deery, Sarah Wolf and Duncan Geddes, for example – everyday people who bring great experiences to the community. We wanted people to share their Rockford experience through their own voice.”
To honor those who make Rockford special, the RACVB annually recognizes and inducts individuals and organizations to its Tourism Hall of Fame. To date, the hall includes 35 inductees. Among the inductees are Jody and Hugh Deery and the Rockford Speedway; the Kegel Family of Harley-Davidson of Rockford; and Bill Johnson, who has been a volunteer for the bureau for more than 20 years. “Our inductees have given of themselves in exceptional ways for the benefit of our community,” Groh says.
In 2009, Groh rejoined the RACVB as president and CEO. After graduating from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., Groh worked for the bureau for eight years before leaving to become executive vice president of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce for two years. When the opportunity arose, Groh jumped at the chance to return.
“It’s been everything I thought and more,” he says. “I like working with ideas and solving problems. I’m blessed to have a great staff and board who give me the authority and latitude to move things forward. Our team is doing a great job selling Rockford.”
In addition to his day-to-day activities, Groh stays plenty busy serving on various boards, such as the chamber, Rockford Area Economic Development Council and the Laurent House Foundation, where he was part of a group that raised $1 million to acquire the Rockford home which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Groh is also serving a three-year term on the international Destination & Travel Foundation board. “It’s great to be involved in an international organization to see how other communities are growing and to recognize that we’re not so different, despite being one of the smaller communities at the table,” he says.
“In this positon you have to be in touch with everyone in the community,” says Snorek. “John’s so well versed in Rockford and the bureau. He gets input from all over the region, and he’s a great spokesperson for the RACVB. He’s very organized and has developed a strong team around him. He knows what buttons to push and how to get things done. He’s perfectly suited for that role.”
Holzwarth agrees. “John’s taken the organization to a new level,” says the partner and attorney at Holmstrom & Kennedy. “He’s invested in the tourism industry, and you can tell he loves it. He’s made a believer out of me. He’s a great asset to the community, particularly the bureau. We’re lucky to have him.”
Groh has been instrumental in putting Rockford on the map, so to speak. Some of the RACVB’s best work can be found in its marketing efforts, especially to combat some of the negative publicity Rockford has endured nationally over the past few years. Remember the RACVB’s highly publicized “Misery Loves Company” media campaign a few years ago that poked fun at the Forbes study that labeled Rockford as the third “most miserable city” in the U.S.?
“Some people wished we had steered clear of it,” says Groh. “There was an online petition to end our campaign. Community leaders were concerned about us airing our dirty laundry. But it didn’t ring true for the community we thought Rockford to be. We decided to turn misery on its head.
“Some people said we’re calling attention to issues. It’s not the first bad list we’ve been on, and it won’t be the last. But our campaign showed that we have a sense of humor and a sense of understanding. Our challenges have nothing to do with Rockford being a great place with a great quality of life. We may have challenges, but quality of life is not one of them.”
The “Misery Loves Company” campaign was the work of GrahamSpencer, a long-time, Rockford-based full-service strategic communications firm. GrahamSpencer has represented the RACVB on a number of projects for 28 years, including the popular tagline Real. Original and the “Hideaway in Rockford.”
Created in 2011, the video-based campaign poked fun at Wisconsin senators who were hiding out in Rockford over a legislative impasse with Gov. Scott Walker, an event that drew national attention. The campaign generated millions of viral hits online.
“The credit goes to John and the RACVB for being willing to roll the dice on these marketing campaigns; they do things most bureaus wouldn’t do,” says Jay Graham, owner and co-creative director of GrahamSpencer. “Chicago is the leading tourism city in Illinois, by a long shot, despite all its negative issues. Rockford has a lot of positive things going on. It’s not the job of a destination tourism marketing organization to emphasize our negatives. Every visitor-worthy community has problems.”
In 2013, the national media had an opportunity to get a close-up view of Rockford, when 85 traveling writers made their way to town as part of the Travel Media Showcase, a three-day event organized by J. Vero & Associates, a New Jersey-based company that produces tourism conferences designed to promote destination travel.
Writers toured several popular destinations, such as the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum, Starlight Theatre, Discovery Center Museum and the Rock River, where visiting writers had the opportunity to kayak. Writers also feasted on meals served up by many local favorites, including Toni’s of Winnebago, Stockholm Inn, Ciao Bella and Garrett’s.
“The biggest satisfaction I got was seeing these journalists love being in Rockford,” says Groh. “We saw people with big smiles, having a wonderful time in our community. We saw that play out over and over throughout the week.”
Stroll on State
One of the best things to happen recently was the creation of Stroll on State, presented by Illinois Bank & Trust, a one-day free event that kicks off the holiday season with family friendly activities such as a tree lighting, entertainment, a visit from Santa, shopping, horse-drawn wagon rides and fireworks.
“We really wanted to create a wow moment for the community where everyone comes together,” says Groh. “No one expected Stroll on State to grow as quickly as it has, but people are happy and joyful coming together during the holiday season.”
Putting together an event this size is a true team effort. The decorations are a major undertaking. About 20 key volunteers start working in September to plan, design and build new decorations that are displayed throughout downtown, primarily along East and West State Streets and North and South Wyman and Main Streets. Crews of volunteers, led by Rockford Sharefest, decorated downtown Rockford with white lights, garland, ribbons, and oversized ornaments, not to mention three official city Christmas trees. More than 300 volunteers participated.
“There are many things to love about Stroll on State,” says Holzwarth. “There are so many people of all ages and families who come out. I can’t think of a better way for people to get together and celebrate a special time of the year.”
The RACVB hosted two additional special events geared towards adults this holiday season. “Shop on State” took place Dec. 10 and featured 14 local businesses that offered shopping specials and free treats during the evening. “Shop on State” also included a wine reception that offered local and regional wines, along with specialty chocolates by CacaoCuvee.
The second new event, the 12 Bars of Christmas Pub Crawl, took place on Dec. 19 and started at Prairie Street Brewhouse, making its way to Vintage @ 501, Kryptonite Bar, Octane Interlounge, Woodfire Pizza, Irish Rose Saloon, Social Urban Bar & Restaurant, Carlyle Brewing Co., District Bar and Grill, CJ’s Public House, Bamboo Asian Noodles & Tapas Bar and Abreo. Each location featured signature events and activities, as well as drink and food specials.
“There’s so much happening downtown,” says Holzwarth. “For years and years, there was so much work put into these efforts. Now things are happening and there is plenty of momentum. It feels like downtown is alive again. It’s nice to see people having fun.”
Capitalizing on the success of Stroll on State, the RACVB recently introduced another special event called River Lights, presented by MercyRockford Health System. The series of lights are synchronized with music along the downtown Rockford riverbank every night until Jan. 2. The light show lasts 15 minutes starting at 5:30 p.m. After Jan. 2, the colorful lights will remain on year-round, and the performances will return for special occasions and holidays.
River Lights debuted at Stroll on State. “River Lights illuminates downtown Rockford’s riverbanks in a way the community hasn’t experienced before,” says Groh. “Imagine a light show, choreographed to music that is set against the backdrop of the riverfront and our downtown cityscape.”
The RACVB has also become involved in beautification efforts in downtown Rockford. Two years ago, the RACVB launched a Forest City Beautiful program that concentrates on 10 defined spaces in downtown Rockford. As part of the program, the RACVB and volunteers from Rockford Sharefest spend a week in June installing plant material, removing overgrown weeds and repainting light poles, trash cans and benches. Then, the RACVB ensures the landscapes and decorative planters are maintained on a year-round basis.
“We knew the success of Forest City Beautiful was dependent on the community embracing the initiative and the importance of beautification,” says Groh. “For Sharefest to choose Forest City Beautiful as a main focus shows that downtown and our riverfront are important to the entire region.”
A Bright Future
As much as the RACVB has accomplished in the past three decades, bureau officials know their work is far from complete.
When the UW Health Sports Factory opens its doors in the spring, the RACVB will be busy helping to book athletic events and other activities in the newest downtown gem. The first tournament that was booked is a girl’s national basketball championship scheduled for 2018. More than 3,500 attendees are expected to arrive in Rockford, generating $750,000 in spending. Since that first booking, the RACVB and the park district have announced an additional 30 tournaments that will take place at the facility during its first year of operation.
In 2017, Gorman & Company is expected to open a 160-room hotel and conference center in downtown Rockford in the former Amerock building along the Rock River. Local developer Joseph James Partners is also developing a boutique hotel that is slated to begin construction in downtown during the spring of 2016. The RACVB has assisted in the development process, providing marketing data and hosting a number of meetings between hotel officials and community partners, such as the chamber, RAEDC and the City of Rockford, to promote Rockford’s potential.
Rockford is one of 25 finalists in the running to receive a $25,000 Levitt AMP matching grant to host a 10-week live music series at Davis Park next summer. The RACVB, along with partners the YMCA of the Rock River Valley and the Rockford Area Venues & Entertainment Authority, worked together to put the grant application together. The finalists were determined by the number of online votes they received through community participation.
The RACVB will keep looking for more opportunities, using Stroll on State as a model of success. “We continue to look at new opportunities to engage residents and visitors alike,” says Snorek. “The RACVB is not a festival planner, but it would be in Rockford’s best interest to look at finding a way to fill the void left by On the Waterfront. Do we want to do something like a concert or festival? It would be nice to come up with a concept and in a couple of years turn it over to a nonprofit. But for the immediate future, it’s going to be paramount to fill up the UW Health Sports Factory. We are still in the business of putting heads in the beds, because we rely on that hotel tax, but programming facilities like the Sports Factory is going to help make Rockford a more vibrant community.”
Groh sees plenty of opportunities for Rockford to shine, including in its historic neighborhoods. “I think the Midtown area will be the next great stroll district with restaurants, retail shops and art galleries,” he says. “The same thing happened with the downtown historic district. We have to recognize there is value in our older neighborhoods.”
Holzwarth, a native of Rockford, joined the RACVB board three years ago. She’s been involved in a number of local organizations but has come to see her hometown in a different light since joining the tourism organization’s board.
“I think Rockford has a great depth and breadth of talent that we don’t always recognize,” she says. “The RACVB has opened my eyes to many different aspects of our city. I now look at the arts and entertainment opportunities through the eyes of a visitor. Just look at all the wonderful venues we have – the museums, parks, golf courses and gardens. We’re very lucky to have all the things we have in Rockford.
“We don’t always give ourselves enough credit. Sure, we have challenges and there is work to be done,” Holzwarth adds. “We need to better understand why we’re on some of those negative lists. We need to do a better job telling our story. Moving forward, you will see a greater effort to rebrand ourselves. We will support all efforts to transform the region. We need to let people know that Rockford is a great place to live, work and have fun.”