John Groh, M.B.A. '10, Grows Rockford Through Destination Management and Marketing
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

John Groh, M.B.A. '10, devotes his career to his hometown as president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (Photo: Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

John Groh works to make his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, a thriving city to visit, live, and work in. Simply put, Groh grows Rockford. 

As president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB), also known as “GoRockford,” Groh is in the non-profit business of destination management and marketing. While GoRockford’s primary goal is to attract visitors and business partners to the area, Groh explains how his work extends far beyond tourism.

“My friend, colleague and mentor, Maura Gast, executive director of the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau in Texas, said, ‘Build a place where people want to visit, and you’ll build a place where people want to live. Build a place where people want to live, and you’ll build a place where people want to work. Build a place where people want to work, and you’ll build a place where business has to be,’” Groh shared. “This is central to what we do. You can see how a thriving community ties back to attracting people to visit first.”

Groh says a Convention and Visitors Bureau, or CVB, operates much like any other business. 

“In destination marketing, we try to position our communities with strategic marketing to improve the brand perception of our community and its many offerings so that people move through the sales funnel—from awareness to consideration to purchase—and then hopefully repeat the purchase,” said Groh. “Our sales team is continuously building a funnel of partners to bring conferences, events and new attractions to the area, and our marketing team performs the social, digital, paid advertising, and public and community relations functions for each new opportunity brought in.”

Groh’s team collaborates with private and public sector partners as they evaluate or are in the process of bringing a business or experience to the area. For example, when Embassy Suites was looking at a location in Rockford, Groh said his team shared market data, visitor perception scores and information about past investments to help convince the parent company, Hilton, that they would not only do well in downtown Rockford, but the hotel would also be positive for the Rockford community.

“Tourism is economic and community development,” said Groh. “Many of our local venues rely heavily on tourism. Some have 50-60% of their customers coming from outside of the community. Without tourism, visitor experiences that our residents also use would collapse. That’s why we say tourism makes it all possible.”

Businesses and residents anticipate and rely on experiences like Stroll on State, an annual Rockford festival held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. 

“We have approximately 80,000 people downtown in one day,” said Groh. “But it’s not just about people having fun. Experiences like Stroll on State are about bringing residents and visitors downtown to see Rockford in a new and vibrant way. It supports our retailers and restaurateurs. They tell us it’s like their 13th month of the year because some make more sales in one day than in other months.”

To help attract talent to relocate to the area, the RACVB designed the “Made for Rockford” program. Supported by large employers like UW Health, OSF Healthcare and Woodward, an aerospace company, the purpose is to “open the conversation about livability, affordability, and quality of life in the Rockford area,” said Groh. While the campaign is not tourism-oriented, Groh and his staff utilize their successful marketing and consumer-facing messaging expertise to meet the employment needs of the area’s largest employers. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently named Rockford as one of the top real estate markets in the country.

Only leaving Rockford to attend Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, for a bachelor's degree in political science, Groh’s career began—and stayed—in Rockford. He started at the RACVB in 1999 as its communications manager and held a variety of roles before serving as executive vice president. After moving to the Rockford Chamber of Commerce from 2007 to 2009 to serve as its executive vice president, Groh returned to the RACVB in 2009 to serve as president and CEO, where he has been since.

In 2008, while at the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Groh began looking for M.P.A. and M.B.A. programs from Madison to Chicago. 

“I thought I was too busy in my 20s, so I didn’t finish my master’s,” he said. “Later, I began to regret that decision and still had the internal drive. As a non-profit executive, my daily work involved leading an organization, people, legal, and human resources, all those things that were business related, so I decided to pursue an M.B.A. I chose NIU because I needed something focused and time-bound, and the Executive M.B.A. program was structured with a start and end date.” 

Groh appreciated the community that was his cohort of 40 people, all in their late 20s to early 40s. He was the only person from Rockford and liked to share Rockford with his fellow classmates. His message, “Rockford is a lot different than you know,” was straightforward and genuine. He admitted his hometown had been through its rough times but encouraged them to visit to see the turnaround for themselves. 

Later this year, GoRockford will unveil its master plan: a 10-year vision for its destination development. Groh said the community can expect to see “a continued commitment to celebrating, amplifying, and leveraging the Rock, Kishwaukee, Sugar and Pecatonica rivers” that flow through Rockford and its surrounding communities. There will also be a focus on the downtown areas of Rockford, Cherry Valley, Durand, Rockton and Pecatonica, outdoor recreation amenities and mountain biking trails.

“The Rockford area is the perfect mix of urban, suburban, and rural with more than 20,000 plus acres of parks, forest preserves and riverbanks,” said Groh. “We have this great city life that meets amazing outdoor experiences only 10 to 15 minutes away. We will lean into those areas to amplify and grow their visitation over the next 10 years. I want to see residents and visitors create life-long memories by experiencing all the Rockford area has to offer.”

As GoRockford continues to cultivate opportunities to help grow Rockford, Groh expects to see more residents and visitors sprouting up to create life-long memories.