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Be His Guest

When Paul Stansbie is asked about how metro Grand Rapids stacks up against other cities in terms of tourism and the hospitality industry, he offers an unexpected yet fitting professional opinion: swagger.

“There seems to be a different buzz about Grand Rapids…it has a swagger about it," says Stansbie, chair of the Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) program at Grand Valley State University.  "We’re a little league player playing with more high-profile destinations like Orlando.  Size doesn’t seem to matter—we have the confidence and the people to make it happen.  We’re very lucky here.”

The rising self-confidence of Grand Rapids and America's reputation worldwide as being on the cutting edge of the hospitality industry drew Stansbie here from his native England.  Judging by the growth of the GVSU program he heads up, the respect has been mutual.

In the six years that Stansbie has been at GVSU, the program has grown from 181 HTM majors to nearly 500, taught by soon to be 11 full-time instructors. In addition to instructors, Stansbie's wife Amanda -- a seasoned travel and tourism expert herself -- places students in internships where they can complement book-smarts with real-life experience.

Stansbie, 41, attributes the growth of the HTM program to the expansion of tourism services at a "regional, national and international level, and an increase in promotion and awareness of the HTM degree internally.”  Grand Valley’s main competitor is Michigan State University, and Stansbie believes GVSU’s reputation as a school of choice increases yearly.

Part of the program's cachet is connecting students with local hotels like the JW Marriott and the Amway Grand Plaza, the many and varied new restaurants sprouting up in the area, and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Good Company
Stansbie’s pleasant British accent would make just about anyone feel at home.  Educated in both the U.S. and Britain, his love for the service, travel and tourism industry began at a young age.  As a child in his hometown of Birmingham, Stansbie would visit with a local chef, marveling at the man’s ability to create something out of nothing.

He ventured to the U.S. to get his bachelor's degree in hospitality from New Hampshire College, returned to England to receive his master's degree in business administration and is currently pursuing his doctorate in business administration from the University of Plymouth School of Business.

Stansbie was drawn to GVSU because “the HTM program is built on the applied learning business model—we take the theory, we take the practice and meld them together.”  While he enjoyed traveling to Hong Kong and the Maldives to train hospitality professionals through graduate programs in England, Stansbie says he jumped at the chance to “educate and prepare people to be successful in their careers” when GVSU called him.  He became Chair of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program in 2007.

“Students love the fact that [the program] is grounded in theory," Stansbie says. "They can see the right way of doing things, but they also see the realistic way of doing things.  We’re very honest about the challenges of the working environment, the challenges of the labor force, the challenges of the business economy and models."

The GVSU program is designed to move students directly into the professional world.  Offering “tracks” in food and beverage, lodging, travel and tourism and event planning, Stansbie says he want students “to hone their choices, but have transferable skills.”  The program offers studies abroad in Italy and Australia, as well as opportunities to work on the Rothbury Music Festival.  

In keeping the program fresh, an adventure tourism course was added last year.  Defined as any travel associated with outdoor physical activity, adventure tourism is an increasingly important component of the general tourism industry.  The Travel Industry Association of America estimates that $595 billion was spent on adventure travel and outdoor recreation nationally in 2007.

Grand Rapids IS Grand
Watching the growth and development of the area impresses Stansbie, and additions like the Grand Rapids Art Museum, DeVos Place, new restaurants and upcoming events like ArtPrize have him beaming. 

Despite the economy, Stansbie’s optimism about GR’s tourism future remains strong.  He asserts the resiliency of the travel and tourism industry and speaks highly of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s promotion of Grand Rapids.  He also feels the JW Marriott has raised the city’s profile tremendously.

“To think that somewhere like Grand Rapids has one over a city like Chicago, a city like Cleveland, I think that speaks volumes for the ambition of the city," Stansbie says. "It says: Look at us, this is Grand Rapids, look at what we have to offer.  More and more people outside the city take a look at this place and say: Wow.” 

Return on Tourism
The state of Michigan has been dropping much needed time, energy and money into the travel and tourism sector and recently launched a campaign called “Pure Michigan” that appears to be paying off. 

Stansbie quickly rattles off travel and tourism economic statistics, and they do speak loudly.  For every dollar thrown toward the Michigan tourism industry, approximately three dollars is returned to the state treasury—not something to scoff at during these pressing economic times.

“The economy in Michigan is changing significantly and a lot of work is being done by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to get greater funding for tourism," Stansbie says. "They’ve announced historic levels of tourism funding out the Governor’s office to promote the 'Pure Michigan' campaign and that has great benefits for residents of Michigan…it clearly impacts the jobs available and diversification of the economy.” 

The luster of Grand Rapids draws much needed attention to Michigan.  A featured city on the “Pure Michigan” website, the city is heralded for its nightlife, restaurants, natural beauty, shopping and “high-energy, walkable downtown.”  The website boasts, “We need to find places that are genuine and true…we need to find ourselves in Grand Rapids.” 

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, worldwide travel and tourism are estimated to grow 4 percent a year for the next 10 years.  Stansbie believes Michigan and Grand Rapids are in the perfect position to bring those tourists here—and he has just the right graduates to help make it happen.


Bona Van Dis is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.  When  she isn't chasing her 4-year-old son, she's writing and editing for the Aquinas Magazine. 

Photos:

Paul Stansbie, chair of the Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) program at Grand Valley State University (3)


Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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