Alex Michaels knows from first-hand experience Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, is a great place to grow up. But he admits that his teenage self never saw the region—comprised of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton—as a particularly desirable destination, let alone what might be his career’s final destination.
Yet Michaels is now back home, having officially become Discover Lehigh Valley’s president and CEO on Oct. 1. As he settles into his new home, one fact is obvious: This is not his father’s valley anymore.
In the past 30 years, the region between Philadelphia and New York has exploded. What was an area built around steel has shown its metal in urban redevelopment. The arts and culture scene is massive, amplified by Musikfest, the country’s largest free music festival held each August in Bethlehem.
“How do we get that exposure to other states?” Michaels rhetorically asks. Anyone who knows the CVB veteran knows he already has more than a few ideas. “People will be blown away when they see the valley and what it has to offer.”
Michaels fell in love in Lehigh Valley. He met his wife at East Stroudsburg University in 1990. “Like most people who lived in Lehigh Valley at the time, we didn’t see our community as a place people would come for as a destination,” he recalls.
And so he and his wife began what evolved into a nationwide path back to their roots. Michaels’ resume includes impressive CVB stops at Disney, Daytona and Jacksonville, Fla., and most recently, Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Little did he know at the time, leaving the valley—the one who got away, as it were—made him the ideal candidate when the destination marketing organization’s top job opened up.
“We knew in for a challenge to find someone who was both local but had been to other even larger markets preferably,” says Kassie Hilgert, president and chief executive officer of ArtsQuest and chair of Discover Lehigh Valley’s board of directors. “Alex was a very unique individual that had both of those attributes.”
Just as Michaels is a different person than when he left—experience with the U.S. Navy and raising a daughter will do that to you—the valley is in a far different, and arguably, far better place.
“Everything has changed from a tourism perspective since he last lived here,” says Hilgert.
A month before assuming the new job, Michaels and his wife moved back. Like a long lost love, Michaels knows he needs to reintroduce himself.
“I’m amazed at transformation in the past 30 years,” he says. “Things that communities can only dream about have happened there.”
He has a leg up knowing the geography and local lingo. But where once stood a renowned steel plant is now a SteelStacks, 10-acre events campus. And just as the factory was the lifeblood of the community, so, too, is SteelStacks, which hosts more than 1,000 and eight festivals every year.
That’s just one example of the changing landscape.