Name: Rob DeCleene
Title: Executive Vice President
Organization: South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce
Location: South Bend, Indiana
Born: South Bend, Indiana
Education: B.S. 1994, Recreation-Tourism Management, Indiana University
Career History: Bloomington CVB, hotel management, South Bend-Mishawaka CVB
Family: Seven older siblings and a 3-year-old Boston terrier rescue dog, Freddie.
Hobbies: Running, world travel, Scrabble
A Hometown Guy
Rob DeCleene is the youngest — by far — of eight children. When he was starting middle school, his next-oldest sibling was enrolling in college.
“My parents were a little bit older when they had me; I was a bit of a surprise,” he said with a laugh.
So when his parents got the travel bug, he got to tag along on road trips. With their hometown of South Bend, Indiana, as headquarters, the trio traveled extensively while DeCleene was in high school.
“That bug has never left me,” he said. “I probably crossed off a good 40 states with my parents, and just last year, I crossed off my 50th” — Alaska.
DeCleene had such wonderful times traveling with his parents that he wanted to travel for a living but didn’t know exactly how to make that happen. When it came time for college, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that Indiana University in Bloomington had a new program for tourism management.
As part of his undergraduate program at IU, DeCleene interned with the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau, which “introduced me to a completely different side of the industry.” That internship led to a job with the CVB, and he spent his first two years out of college in the CVB world. “That’s all it took to get me hooked,” he said.
He shifted over to the hotel industry for about four and a half years working for a hotel management company and moving around the country to handle sales and operations for a variety of hotels. Eventually, he decided it was time to get back into the CVB world, and when a position opened with the Bloomington CVB, he jumped back in. DeCleene was the Bloomington CVB director of tourism for nine years, from 2001 to 2010.
Back then he kept a mental list of “top five” locations where he would move for a job. The list included big cities such as Austin and San Francisco. No. 5 was his hometown of South Bend, but only if he got the chance to head up Visit South Bend Mishawaka.
“It is my hometown, so it’s always been intriguing to me to get the opportunity to sell and market it,” he said.
He started as the executive director of Visit South Bend Mishawaka in May 2010, and on January 1, 2018, he was promoted into his current role as executive vice president of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is the parent organization of the CVB. In his new role, he didn’t give up any responsibility running Visit South Bend Mishawaka but added expanded duties as the Chamber’s second-in-command.
South Bend is benefiting from both great energy and great synergy today, he said. During the past few years, everyone — the city, the county, corporate partners and the University of Notre Dame — has gotten on the same page to work together in promoting the community.
Tourism in South Bend/Mishawaka starts with the University of Notre Dame because it has an international reputation and enjoys global recognition. On campus, conference planners will find the Morris Inn, with 150 guest rooms and over 28,000 square feet of IACC-certified conference space.
This past fall, the university completed its $400 million Campus Crossroads project, which attached three buildings to the exterior of the 87-year-old Notre Dame football stadium. The expansion included ballroom space, terraces and other event venues throughout, DeCleene said. Planners can also tap Notre Dame for athletics, recreation, performing arts, music and other group experiences.
Downtown has carved out a niche as a cultural and dining district, he said. It’s home to the Morris Performing Arts Center and the South Bend Civic Theatre and has a high concentration of independent restaurants and nightspots. The East Race Waterway is a 1.5-mile, man-made, urban whitewater course that stretches through downtown, allowing visitors to go rafting and kayaking.
The Century Center also sits on the banks of the St. Joseph River in downtown; the venue offers more than 75,000 square feet of convention space with about 430 guest rooms attached in two hotels. Another 200 guest rooms are within easy walking distance of the center, he said.
He has seen how the community has embraced tourism promotion since he returned home eight years ago and how it has helped attract conferences and events.
“It’s a nice affirmation of the importance of tourism and how vital it is to the local economy,” he said. “It’s an exciting time to be here and an exciting time to play a role in it.”
Tips From Bob DeCleene
• Use your destination’s CVB. And that’s not just a company line. There are so many services, tips and incentives and so much local knowledge available from a CVB staff that it can only make your meeting more high-impact and successful.
• Get out into the community with as many functions as possible. Ninety-nine percent of meeting venues are windowless and can be Anywhere, USA. Show your attendees you want them to experience the destination.
• Offer a hot breakfast. It’s simple, but people like protein.