Strategizing for Success, with Alex Michaels

Episode 274:

Alex Michaels has lived in eight states and spent more than two decades in the leisure and hospitality business, punctuated by a four-year stint in the Navy that began Sept. 11, 2001.

When he learned Michael Stershic, Discover Lehigh Valley’s president was retiring after 14 years, the former Navy hospital corpsman jumped at the chance to apply. After a nationwide search, Michaels, 49, was named president of Discover Lehigh Valley, whose mission is to promote tourism and market the region.

On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Alex Michaels about why he is so intentional about fostering a culture of collaboration in his organization and why he believes that educating stakeholders about their role in building partnerships has helped bolster post-pandemic success. We also discuss the positive influences on his leadership style, his commitment to constant education and reflection, and why he believes that Discover Lehigh Valley is stronger today than ever before.

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How Alex got his start in the hospitality industry at Disney World and why it was such a tremendous formative experience in the business
  • How Alex’s leadership style has been influenced by his time in the Navy
  • Why Alex has always been motivated to embrace technology in destination marketing
  • Why Alex decided to move from a traditional office to a more collaborative meeting and working space
  • Ways that Alex and his team decided to cut spending and how it has helped them move forward co-operatively with other local DMOs
  • Discover Lehigh Valley’s current focus on talent supply and how they hope to tap into graduates of the region’s colleges and universities each year
  • How moving to a storytelling method of marketing has helped Alex’s area work together to brand several destinations or services as one

Leadership Lessons from Recent Challenges

Alex describes why he is committed to creating an environment where the team at Discover Lehigh Valley has ownership of what they do at the DMO. He shares how their culture of collaboration with the Economic Development Agency, their Chamber, and their local partners has become a vital factor in their post-pandemic success.

On the show, we discussed the extent to which DMOs have become part of the economic development puzzle for their areas. Alex outlines why it’s so essential for travel and tourism leaders to emphasize the importance of educating all of the stakeholders on the investment they make into the community and to share what they have with the visitors, which are often instrumental in helping drive the local economy.

Encouragement and Support

Our focus on the podcast is how collaboration and co-opetition can move you forward as a destination, so I was fascinated to hear Alex’s take on why he sees collaboration as vital to the future of the travel and tourism industry. He shares some of the creative approaches to collaboration that have helped the Lehigh Valley team move through the challenges of the last few years.

We also discussed in detail some of the projects that Discover Lehigh Valley worked on during the pandemic, including working towards a Destination Management accreditation program and a Certified Tourism Ambassador program, and why they were ready to make the pivot and leverage new opportunities as soon as shutdowns were announced.

Time for Reflection

Digging deep into the operation side of the organization, from going through the accreditation process to understanding the importance of streamlining the budget helped Alex and Discover Lehigh Valley put themselves in the best position to take advantage of the renewed appetite for travel.

Alex describes how his organization has built valuable partnerships in the local area that allow them to engage potential visitors in the authentic story of the region via their marketing channels. He also highlights why the enforced pause in day-to-day activities gave the Lehigh team time to take stock and evaluate which activities were most likely to provide a return on investment and benefit the community the most.


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