Visit Denver, an organization that promotes the Mile High City, has benefited from the work of communications director Rich Grant for 35 years. The 60-person office aims to bring in tourism to the city, whether it's through conventions, vacations, or members of the press who will then spread the good word. Throughout his tenure, Grant has witnessed Denver's tremendous evolution, from the construction of DIA to this year's explosion of restaurant openings. Eater talked to Grant about the changes, food press trips, favorite breweries, millennials and more.
What is your job—and Visit Denver—about? It's hardcore direct sales, just like selling any product. We have a big sales force and they are divided by types of meeting, size of meeting, and geographic distribution. They maintain a client base and they keep contact with them. We do TV advertising, billboards, and we do a lot of online now. SEO to get people to our website. But the business has changed, obviously. When I started there were 300 travel writers and that was it. I knew every single one of them. You bring eight, 10 press writers in on a press trip and you can really move the needle. There were a lot of influencers. Today there's 10,000 travel writers, food writers and you can still move the needle, but it's not as easy as it used to be.
How many people were in the office when you started? About 20 or 24. We didn't have a copy machine when I started. You had to type each press release individually, and it wasn't considered press if it hadn't been typed. We had to type it. They would hold it up because they wanted to see light from the keystrokes to see if it had actually been typed. If they weren't important enough to get the typed one, they wouldn't cover the story. It was very Mad Men. Everyone chain-smoked. You sat at your desk and you chain-smoked.
What has been your secret for staying so long? I had nowhere else to go. I flew below the radar. I was in everything, because you had to cover it. So it's kinda like a journalist. A journalist is in the room where all exciting things are done. They don't influence it, but they report on it. I was in the room, but my job was to publicize whatever happened, but nobody wants to hear from the PR guy usually...unless they're doing something that could potentially backfire. I've seen everything, from the opening of the mall to the airport to the Union Station, so it's been cool. In this job you know all the mayors, you know all the movers and shakers and editors. It's a lot of fun. It's been great.
Can you name the best part of the job? To me, the parties. It's like high school because you go to the party and you know everybody there. After you've been around a long time, wherever you go you pretty much know everybody.
So why now for retirement? The job deserves somebody new. It's a young person's job. It takes 10 hours a day, and there's a lot of weekend work. I can't sit though 10 hours a day of looking at the screen and media. It's time for the next generation.
How can somebody replace someone who's been here for 35 years? Oh, easy. There's plenty of people who can do it. It's a great job because the city is fantastic. The city is hot right now. It's not that hard to promote it but you have to be out there constantly. Whatever the subject is, there is always a Denver angle. It's great, but it's not that hard.
What would be your advice for your successor? We're in the entertainment industry. We're dealing with how people spend their discretionary money. Our competitors are movie theaters. People don't have to travel. They can take a staycation and go to the theaters and go shopping and stay at home. We're trying to convince them to spend a significant amount of money, and it's not just in cities. Cruise ships are huge. It's a growing industry because you book one thing, then all you have to do is pick your day trips. All your restaurants are decided for you. When you come to a city, you have to figure out what hotel, what part of town, what am I going to do, do I need a car? You need to process a lot of information to have a city vacation, versus a cruise ship or going to a resort or going to a beach hotel. People are taking shorter and shorter vacations, and they're taking that vacation to get away from stress. It's tough.
Let's talk about food. What was the best restaurant when you started? We had quite a bit. You always had the Palace Arms. We had a thing—Top of the Rockies, which is gone but it was a gorgeous view restaurant. It surprises me that we don't have one now. That had a great view. When I started, the Buckhorn Exchange had just come back. It had always been in operation, but it had really gone downhill. The Fort, and then I'd say all the other big ones are gone—a lot of big steak places; French was the ultimate experience. Larimer Square was all different.
It's tough with food. Only really recently is there such an abundance with stories you can't keep up with. There was a time where it was relatively simple to say you've been to every single good restaurant in the city. It wasn't that big of a challenge. That's certainly impossible now. There's only 365 days a year. By the time you get done, you couldn't begin to keep up with new restaurants. Things have definitely changed.
What do you think changed in the dining culture here? We are constantly getting more sophisticated. We have what we call the Colorado paradox, which is that we have one of the highest number of graduates per capita, but for people born in Colorado, we have one of the lowest percentages. Everybody who's here with a college education, came from somewhere else. Whereas some cities have a "brain drain" where highly smart and educated people are leaving those places, we have a "brain suck." We're pulling in the smartest, the most innovative, the most advanced people who want a better life, who want something more. A lot of them are coming from sophisticated populations. There are people coming from everywhere here. There was always something here. We were always the most sophisticated city between St. Louis and San Francisco. That's the length of Rome to London. Take that area, and there's nothing in between except Denver.
How does Restaurant Week factor in? I think we're more obsessive about it. When it's here, there's a whole lotta buzz about it. Everybody's talking about it. Everybody goes out. That's not true in other cities. In other cities I think people just kind of stumble into it. I think it got people used to going to these restaurants. And then they do go back. When you talk to the restaurants about Restaurant Week, they'll say, "we never see anybody come back," but it's not true because every foodie I know will go back and tell somebody! All the foodies are going. I know people who went 14 nights. That's climbing a fourteener. It's an accomplishment.
Tell me about some food press trips—fun stories of people coming into Denver to check out food. We had a Japanese film crew come in. It was a reality TV show where a couple won a trip from Japan to Colorado. They were following them all around. They were at the Buckhorn and they had bitten into a Rocky Mountain oyster without knowing what it was and when they told them, they freaked! It was just completely horrifying.
Anthony Bourdain came in and ate six hotdogs at Biker Jim's. I got a call from the top editor of Food + Wine and she said, "I was there and I had the best hotdog of my life but I can't remember the name of the place for some reason. Can you give me his phone number?" So she wrote a column! But here's the thing: Anyone in the world would want just one word in her column, but she wrote half a column about Biker Jim. When Anthony Bourdain came in, we said, "In some cities they give you a key. In Denver we give you a fork to the city." We got a big serving fork and we brought it to Anthony and the mayor presented it to him on stage.
Where do you like to go out? I've been to every brewery and bar. There are only 10 breweries I haven't been to, but I will work on that. When I retire, I'm going to have a moveable office. Every morning I'm going to a different coffee house and move around the whole town and neighborhoods. There are over 100 bars where there's a happy hour that you can get a great draft beer for $3. So every evening I'll be at a different one, and I'll post them and tell people to join me. $3 craft beer, who doesn't want that?
If you had to pick just one brewery to go to, which one would it be? Right now the Denver Beer Company is my favorite. It epitomizes Denver—the roll-up walls, people coming with their dogs, food trucks outside, bikes. But also the Wynkoop...there's so many memories. The best beer in the city is the Hogshead Brewery. If I could have only one beer, it's Hogshead. Every one of their beers is amazing.
What are you going to miss the most? The people I work with. The 60 young people. I love millennials. I think millennials are the best thing since hippies. I love hanging out with them. I think they have the perfect attitude of putting life first ahead of jobs, and experiencing new things and trying new things and traveling and moving around. I'm sick of everybody else! I really like hanging with young people. So I suppose I'll be around. This job, you get paid to take people around your favorite city.