Michael Bowman, President and CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, welcomes you to Montco
Mention Valley Forge and images of General George Washington, foot soldiers, a snow-covered battlefield and the Revolutionary War may surely come to mind. Yet the iconic Valley Forge and Valley Forge National Historical Park are located in Montgomery County, a region that in recent years has been exploding in tourism in leaps and bounds. It may be history that initially draws visitors from across the United States and internationally, but there is much more to this sprawling region located just miles from the City of Philadelphia.
“Montgomery County is the third-largest county in the state of Pennsylvania,” noted Michael Bowman, president and CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board (VFTCB). And since 2015, when Bowman took the reins to lead the organization, the county, with a population of over 826,000, has been experiencing a new dimension as a multifaceted tourist destination (see valleyforge.org). It’s all part of a marketing and rebranding campaign of the 501c(6) non-profit organization that receives partial funding from the county’s four percent hotel tax. “We strategically refreshed and relaunched our brand,” explained Bowman. “And we strategically launched subbrands.” The brand—“Valley Forge Tourism: Make it Montco”—has translated to more than $1.6 billion in economic impact in the region. And the momentum has no signs of lessening.
Bowman explained that when he and his team initially brainstormed about rebranding, they discovered there were 17 Montgomery Counties in the country. So, it made sense to use the Valley Forge name, “a world icon,” and integrate the county as a tagline.
“We have the best shopping in the country,” beamed Bowman, citing King of Prussia as one of the top malls, which recently underwent a major expansion and will soon announce plans for another. Bowman elaborated on the numerous sub-brands: “We launched arts and culture (featuring Cirque du Soleil and the Harlem Globetrotters), Montco weddings, Crave Montco (cuisine to satisfy every taste bud), Valley Forge Sports and Montco Golf (with 53 golf courses). There’s a lot to do in Montgomery County and we are family-focused.”
Even with all the success, Bowman and his staff of 28 employees and eight interns are not resting on their laurels. The team, comprised of a marketing and sales division, is hard at work to continue to drive economic impact. It’s the reason the rebranding effort was launched. Prior to rebranding, that began about the same time Bowman assumed his position, economic impact in the region was good. “We have taken it to another whole level, including expanding our reach to millennials, Gen Xers and Gen Ys,” said Bowman, 57, who was born, bred and still resides in the Philadelphia region.
He is also quick to point out the VFTCB’s support for interns, tapped from throughout the region. “There are so many great universities in our backyard,” said Bowman, citing schools such as Montgomery County Community College, Ursinus College, Arcadia University, St. Joseph’s University and the University of Pennsylvania, to name a few.
Bowman is clearly passionate about his home turf, the organization he leads and the county’s multitude of gems. It may come as no surprise then that Bowman, staff members and the non-profit have been the recipients of numerous awards, including the Main Line Chamber Nonprofit CEO of the Year Award, Best Cultural Tourism Advocacy–Northeast USA & LUX Excellence Award in American Heritage Tourism 2019 and the Tri-County Area Chamber of Commerce Hidden Gem Award.
Bowman understands tourism and hospitality from a unique perspective. He has held an array of senior-level positions over the last 30 years in the hospitality and gaming industries. His expansive resume includes stints with Hilton Hotels, Wyndham Worldwide, Rush Gaming and Harrah’s (now Caesars) Entertainment. Prior to his current position, he was president and CEO of the Valley Forge Casino Resort. He also worked closely with the owners to develop and oversee construction of the casino.
“I worked my way up the ranks, which has benefitted me,” said Bowman, a 1982 graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He started his career—quite literally—in the kitchen, working alongside what he described as some of the most amazing, renowned chefs.
His affiliation with the VFTCB began around 2011 when he accepted a volunteer appointment on the governing board. He later served as board chair and was then asked to interview for his current job. “As soon as I got on the board, I fell in love with tourism,” said Bowman who started attending conventions and traveling abroad. “It touches a lot of what’s in my DNA. I love it.”
That DNA also encompasses contributing to the community and acquiring knowledge on an ongoing basis. It’s the reason Bowman has long served on numerous boards and continues to do so. These currently include the Elmwood Park Zoo, Montgomery County Development Corporation and the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Board.
Bowman’s passion for travel and tourism is also apparent in his personal life. In his free time, he loves to play golf as well as travel with his wife of 30 years, Karen, and their two daughters, Oksana, 14 and Anastasia, 12.
Bowman is a firm believer in the Service-Profit Chain, a theory and business model developed in the 1990s by Harvard University researchers. “If you value your employees, give them the tools to work with, survey your guests and communicate well and do that consistently in any business, you will drive financial results and have great morale,” said Bowman, a philosophy that has served him well over the years.
Bowman is also committed to growing international tourism. His on-the-job travels have taken him to London, Berlin and most recently, Beijing. “International tourists don’t have to pay tax on shopping in the region,” said Bowman, which has meant increased international sales in the county and the King of Prussia Mall. In addition, the mall accepts UnionPay. Bowman said that Philadelphia International Airport’s continuing expansion of direct international flights has been a big plus for tourism.
“We also support over 25,000 jobs in the hospitality industry,” said Bowman. “When people book a wedding, they come early or stay over an extra day. When youth sports organizations have events, the hotels are filled.” Bowman said there are 76 hotels in the county and 8600 hotel rooms. When families book stays, they realize there are restaurants—1,700 to be exact—parks, over 100 miles of hiking and walking trails including those at the new John James Audubon Center, LEGOLAND, breweries, wineries, distilleries and more. They take advantage of the offerings.
With more and more visitors flocking to the region, expansions and renovations of hotels goes hand in hand. “In the next 16 months, there will be over $100 million in renovations of existing hotels,” said Bowman. In addition, the Valley Forge Visitor’s Center, located on the grounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park, is undergoing a $15 million dollar renovation. It’s expected to reopen in the summer of 2020. And plans are underway for the construction of three new hotels.
Bowman couldn’t be prouder of the domino effect and the plethora of industries that have been positively impacted. Yet, there’s always the need to look ahead. “The youth sports industry is blowing up,” said Bowman. Besides traditional sports like baseball, basketball and soccer, there’s pickleball, volleyball, lacrosse, dodgeball, dance, cheer.
Due to the enormous growth and recognition that parents want to steer their kids away from their cell phones, the organization’s three-year strategic plan includes the design for a 175 square foot indoor sports facility with 12 potential outdoor fields. “We’re talking with developers and political partners,” said Bowman, clarifying that the construction wouldn’t be funded by the VFTCB, but hopefully by private business and possibly local government.
The VFTCB will continue to market hotels and draw people to the region. “Once people visit the county and experience it, they become our biggest promoters,” said Bowman.
Learn more at www.valleyforge.org