Mike Bowman, President & CEO of Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board speaks with MONTCO Today about growing up in what his mother referred to as ‘Greater Northeast’ Philadelphia, how a move to Bucks County changed the course of his life, his career in the hospitality industry, how he got the job leading the region’s most active tourism and convention board, and how advice from an early mentor set the tone for his life and leadership style.
Where did you grow up Mike?
I was born in 1962 in Philadelphia, the youngest of four kids. I grew up in what my mother used to call the “Greater Northeast” section of Philadelphia, near the intersection of Red Lion and Marie Roads. My father was a Philadelphia police officer before he left the force and went to work for Faulkner Automotive. My mom, like many women at that time, was a stay-at-home mother.
What do you remember about growing up in Northeast Philly?
I grew up in a neighborhood that was very close; all the neighbors knew and looked out for each other. It was an amazing place to be a kid. Plus, with my father’s family from South Philadelphia and my mother’s family in nearby Delaware County, I always had cousins, aunts and uncles around. Family was everything. It still is.
What prompted your parent’s move to Newtown?
My father always liked the town. As kids, he would take us for rides to Peddler’s Village, New Hope and Washington Crossing. Newtown was starting to boom. My parents found a house they fell in love with right across the road from Tyler State Park, so we moved.
Was it an easy adjustment for you to make?
We moved when I was a high school sophomore. Until that time, I attended Catholic school for both elementary grades and my freshman year. When we moved to Newtown, I started attending Council Rock High School, one of the best high schools in Pennsylvania.
Council Rock had a one-on-one approach with students, teachers and guidance counselors. It clicked for me in a big way. The entire setting – including the academics – was amazing, and I made some great friends there.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I didn’t. I was always working!
What was your first job?
I took over a paper route from my brother and delivered The Evening Bulletin every day. I was also a caddie at Philmont Country Club.
But my first “real” job was washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia. I told them I was 16 to get the job, but I was only 14 at the time. I instantly fell in love with the hospitality industry and started working my up. I worked at the Washington Crossing Inn where I learned to love cooking.
What lessons did you take from those first jobs that stay with you today?
As a paperboy, I learned a lot about money management and customer relations. I had to collect money each week from my customers, which meant knowing who they were and serving them with whatever specifics they had for their paper: put it in the door, wrap it in plastic in the rain, make sure it arrives before 6 p.m. Whatever it was. Good paperboys got good tips, and that was important to me.
I also learned about gaining new customers. The Bulletin would set goals for us for getting new subscribers, and those who passed it got tickets to a Phillies or Flyers game. I always surpassed the goals that were set. I became the top guy for new customers at my branch.
It taught me that results get rewarded. And that success takes drive. And that a little healthy competition can be a great motivator.
From caddying, I learned patience and accountability. Golfers weren’t always the nicest people in the world, and I had to be patient if I expected to earn tips. And like the newspaper business, the harder I worked, the more I earned.
In the restaurant business, I was around a lot of older people who taught me a lot about life as well as the business. It was definitely experiential.
Where did you go to college, Mike?
I wanted to go to Penn State. All my siblings went away to school, and my parents were pushing me to do the same. At the end of my sophomore year at Council Rock, however, a guidance counselor asked me if I had ever considered attending culinary school. I hadn’t, but I knew how much I loved the restaurant business.
This counselor got me interviews at some of the top culinary schools in the country, and in 1980 I was accepted to Culinary Institute of America (CIA) on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The experience changed my life.
Was the CIA a good choice for you?
Back then, you didn’t have celebrity chefs like you do today. Instead, there were a lot of international chefs from places like Germany, France and Austria who provided very structured and disciplined training. I fell in love with it.
From there I did an internship at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach. I built a great relationship with the resort’s executive chef, as well as the food and beverage director who liked me and give me a chance to do everything in one of the resort’s ten restaurants. After my internship had wrapped up, I went back to the CIA and got my degree.
Diploma in hand, I worked at some very high-profile places like the Parker House in Boston, The Sagamore in New York and other five-star resorts.
Who gave you your big break, Mike?
That would have to be Helmut Tevini. Helmut was my mentor. He was an Austrian and a true leader who was the executive chef at the Fontainebleau resort. He gave me advice and direction for many years about who to work with, what experience I needed and how long I should work at each place.
How did you get the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board position?
I spent a number of years at Harrah’s Entertainment. While there, I twice won the corporate leadership award for the entire organization. When Harrah’s went private a couple of years ago, I left and became a consultant helping the owners of the Valley Forge Resort and Casino develop and build out the property. I thought my stint there would be for 18 months, maybe two years. Instead, I ended up being there for four years!
While I was there, I took a board position at Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board and eventually became board chair. When the current CEO left to pursue another opportunity, I was approached to discuss the open position.
I liked what the VF was doing so I said I was. The rest is history.
You’ve been in the position for two years. How’s it working out for you?
I love it. Being the CEO of Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board is the highlight of my career! I’m a firm believer that great service brings great results, and the present talent we have in our organization bears that out. It is an amazing team that is smart, energetic, creative and very strategic.
What challenges and opportunities are you focused on over the next three to six months?
One of the lessons I’ve taken with me throughout my career is about empowerment. Often, the role of a leader is to bring together people who are passionate winners and then get out of their way and let them succeed. I try to create that kind of environment here.
I remind my team, our number one challenge is to remain creative. Montgomery County is on fire right now. There’s so much to do here. To market that and get the word out is fun and exciting.
One of our organizational priorities is to protect our portfolio of brands. We have created a number of platforms for success of both our sales and marketing efforts; they include identities such as Patriot Trails (our historical itineraries), Destination Shop Montco, Destination Montco Weddings and Destination Montco Golf. Being organized under these lines of business – which all foot to overnight hotel stays – helps us keep our messaging fresh, creative and strategic. They also help us quantify our efforts and use data to map future initiatives.
Attracting the right talent is always a challenge. I’m a big sports guy and like to surround myself with winners. We have a bright, enthusiastic team at Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board. We not only want to give them fun, challenging work to do while they’re with us, but we also want to set them up for their careers. I want our people to come, work hard, be creative, learn and teach me and be promoted, whether it’s here or out in other organizations. Having passion and energy is the key.
In terms of opportunity, we leverage the local tourism business as a value proposition. Whether someone is coming into Montgomery County to shop, play golf, get married or explore history, we have the assets to ensure they have a great time and stay within their appropriated budgets.
If we can welcome a visitor here, have him or her experience a terrific vacation and return home talking about how it didn’t cost a fortune, that’s a win-win. They will then tell everyone they know that Montgomery County is not only a fantastic place but a destination that’s easy on the budget. That third-party endorsement is the best kind of compliment.
You spoke recently about expanding the county’s sports tourism market?
Sports is a niche marketplace that continues to grow nationwide. My goal is that one day Montgomery County is home to one of the best competitive sports facility in the entire country. We have all the amenities and could easily support a facility like that.
This line of business is a significant success factor for our hotels. Sports competitions last year generated nearly 50,000 room nights. More than half of all visitors who came to Montgomery County came as the result of a sports competition or championship held here. The economic impact is huge, $20 million in 2015.
These visitors come and stay and watch their kids play. They need a place to eat; they want something to do on their free time; they shop; they visit; they play. This is where the rest of our tourism assets kick in, our 57 golf courses, our 74 hotels, our 91 miles of connected trails.
These are exciting times to be in Philadelphia.
I am on the executive board of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, as well as several other business boards. I’m in Philly a lot, and it’s a great place. Montgomery County’s proximity to the city is huge, and as we saw with the Papal visit and the DNC, we have plenty of tourism assets to attract visitors from Philadelphia here. It’s only 18 miles away. And we can offer things you can’t do downtown, like skiing, indoor skydiving, and the best shopping in the U.S.
Finally, Mike, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
An old friend and mentor named Ron Bauman told me early on always to work at a position that I loved. You have to do what you love and love what you do, especially with work. We each put so much time into our work; it consumes so much of our lives.
Fear is life’s biggest obstacle. Do what you love and love what you do and surround yourself with great people and you’ll be happy!
An effective leader inspires, recognizes, communicates and sets the example.
He or she also creates an environment of trust and allow colleagues the freedom to express an opinion, suggest and idea, mold a concept. To do this well, leadership’s ego must sometimes take a backseat – and that’s often hard for leaders to do – but that kind of discipline is really empowering to employees. Once they’ve got a forum in which to brainstorm, it’s a little impossible to figure out exactly what will result… but it’s always fun to see where things go.
It’s not confusing nor hard, but a lot of people end up overthinking it.