Hello West Michigan


Woman walking with headphones

West Michigan is a great place to be! This week’s guest, Rachel Bartels of “Hello West Michigan,” discusses the stress of relocation and why it’s worth it!





00:06 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m home, welcome in from finance to fitness. We have got it all covered for you. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson, and I’m the Chief Marketing Officer of Consumers Credit Union and I have the pleasure of meeting people all over this great state and country of ours and introducing them to you. And today we are going to talk about something that is near and dear to pretty much everybody’s heart, because you know what, it really revolves around work and making sure you find the right work. And where is your passion and what do you like to do? And you know something, there is a place in West Michigan that helps you really zero in on staying in West Michigan working here and loving it. And the person who runs all of that is Rachel Bartels, she is our partner with Hello West Michigan, she’s also the Executive Director. Hi!


00:58 Rachel Bartels: Hello Lynne, thanks for having me.


01:00 LJ: I’ll tell you what, we’re really excited to have you here today. I want us to just jump right in because you’re new in the executive director role with Hello West Michigan.


01:08 RB: I am.


01:08 LJ: Tell us what your role really revolves around. But then also give us a little background on where you came from.


01:14 RB: Yeah, so Hello West Michigan, I’ve been with the organization almost six years now. I started as program manager and just took over as executive director, a few months ago. I think it has been some of the fastest weeks of my life so far here taking on this role, but it’s been a whirlwind so far, and certainly the adventure that I signed up for. Definitely. So Hello West Michigan, our organization promotes West Michigan as a great place to live and work, and we also help people who are interested in relocating here. We’re constantly trying to educate people about West Michigan, and what type of lifestyle you can have here. We’re working to attract people from outside of the area to make sure that they get that message and they understand the type of life you can have here. And then if someone is interested and they say, “Hey yeah, this is the place I want to be,” we want to connect them with employers and with community resources. So that’s really where Hello West Michigan is as an organization, right now.


02:07 LJ: Well, I had the opportunity to go and really see you in action, at the annual meeting. And I thought, one of the things I thought that was most eye-opening and “aha!” that I had not known about is a website that you helped create and build that really is interactive for many, many organizations. Tell us about that.


02:28 RB: Yeah. So the one you’re referring to is backtomichigan.com, and that was really a collaborative promotional effort for our event that we do on Thanksgiving Eve. So the night before Thanksgiving, I don’t know if you know this Lynne…


02:40 LJ: I do.


02:41 RB: But it’s the biggest bar night of the year. It was a fun fact that I learned when I came to Hello West Michigan. I did not previously know that but now I am instead of working…


02:48 LJ: Now you partake.


02:50 RB: I sort of. I’m at the bar, but I am technically working. So, our event Rethink West Michigan has really become a signature event for our organization. And what I love about it is it’s really the in-person embodiment of what we do all year long, and that’s because people who come home for the holiday to visit their family, they’re living outside the area, they’re coming home to visit, we get them out to chat with employers so they can explore what relocation could look like. So it’s a networking event, but it’s not like any networking event you’ve probably been to because it’s at a bar, it’s very casual. I don’t think anyone wants to go to a networking event, or a career fair on their vacation, on their Thanksgiving vacation, but this is incredibly casual and I think it’s really fun. But what we did is, so Rethink West Michigan has been going on for seven years, so we started it here in the Grand Rapids area, we’ve expanded even our brand to be multiple locations, so we hold our event, not only in Grand Rapids, but also Hastings, Muskegon, Holland, Ludington and Newaygo. And now what’s great about it is other places around the state have realized, “Hey, this is a great idea. We should take this idea and do it in our own community.” And so our model for the event has been copied around the state.


04:01 LJ: That’s amazing.


04:02 RB: So now in Arbor, Lansing, Traverse City, Houghton, Great Lakes Bay and Kalamazoo all host similar events, but they’re all under… They all have their own unique brand and spin. So, in Lansing, it’s called Capital Comeback, in Kalamazoo it’s called Zoomerang. So they all have these different brands, but we’re all doing the same thing. And so we said, “You know what, it doesn’t matter whether you’re visiting, if you’re coming from Chicago, it doesn’t matter if your family is in Grand Rapids or in Lansing, or in Houghton, you should have a conversation with employers if you want to.” So let’s get all that information together. And that’s what we do with backtomichigan.com, so that all of our community partners could promote one URL instead of promoting seven different brands.


04:37 LJ: That is a great idea. And you know what, it really focuses in on the collaboration which is what is happening here in West Michigan, about you really need to rethink coming back home.


04:49 RB: That’s exactly right.


04:50 LJ: Yeah, so I’ve raised six kids and… Yeah, I know, and they’re all doing tremendously well and I’m very, very proud of them. But it was very interesting because one of my daughters who graduated from grad school, and she came back to Grand Rapids. Now, she’s in Chicago right now for a very specific reason, in training and teaching. But I will tell you, she and her fiancé, it is an automatic to come back.


05:16 RB: That’s fantastic.


05:18 LJ: I think the cool thing about it is there’s such a surprised delight when you grew up here, or you’re relocating here and you don’t know anything about the West Michigan market, what do you hear on the streets that kind of surprises you the most, or that makes you smile about, “Wow, I just didn’t know that.”


05:38 RB: Yes.


05:39 LJ: I know you said you know the bar night but… [chuckle]


05:41 RB: Right, no, what’s incredible is that with every story that we hear there’s all different reasons. And that’s absolutely incredible for us to hear because we certainly talk to candidates when they’re at the beginning of their journey, and thinking about coming back and starting that job search, but then we also look to follow up with them afterwards and see, “Hey how is it going for you?” And certainly, one of the big drivers especially for the population that we call boomerangs, so people who grew up here or went to college here, left and want to come back. That’s what we call a boomerang.


06:11 RB: That group. The big driver for them is being closer to their family because either they’ve had a kid and they realized how difficult that is to… It’s hard to raise a family when you don’t have that community support, or they know it before they have a family and so they want to come back to prepare for that, or if they’re living in a big city with a high cost of living, owning a home is not a reality for them, especially as a young professional, but it’s possible here in West Michigan. And so, they come back for that. Those are I think some of the big reasons that we hear. But we hear so many other incredible reasons about really, the quality of life here in West Michigan, the types of opportunities, the access to arts and culture. Outdoor recreation is a big one. I mean we’re sitting in your office right now, look around us, it’s absolutely gorgeous outside.


06:55 RB: And people, they just don’t realize that that’s available here. I’ve had one woman who, she came from Texas, and I remember doing her kind of interview afterwards, talking like, “Alright, how are you liking West Michigan, how does your family like it?” And her daughter loved playing outside in the yard, because she could play outside in the grass, and in Texas there’s really no soft grass to play in. So that was her daughter’s favorite thing about being here in Michigan, was playing in a lawn. And it’s like that’s such a… You and I probably look at the lawn and it’s like, “Oh I’ve got to go cut the lawn, this week,” right? That’s a chore to us. But to this woman and to her family, that was something that was kind of new and exciting and a positive about living here and every story has an element like that and it’s just incredible to talk to people once they’ve made that journey.


07:41 LJ: Have you found in the housing, have you found… I know we are growing leaps and bounds in the Grand Rapids market, in the sense of condos and apartments that are available. Have you heard that people are worried about the fact that the housing though, “Man, it’s going to be so expensive, it just seems to be going up, up, up.” Or are you just seeing it as across the board look at West Michigan’s great, because our housing really is trying to stay at a level that many can afford?


08:08 RB: Yeah, I think this one is a little bit tricky, because certainly for people who have really only been in the West Michigan market, or they’ve been here for a very long time, they really see it as going up and up and up. But when you have someone relocating from another area that really does have a high cost of living, I think in terms of buying, I think that it is still very affordable, especially when you’re comparing it to those larger metro areas. And in that sense, people like it and they say, “Yes, I can afford a home here, and I can afford much more home than I could in this other place. I could live on a small inland lake or I could have land, if I wanted. I’m not on a postage stamp but that’s not what I want.” And that’s really, I think one of the things that draws people especially either coming back or coming here for the first time.


08:51 LJ: The other is commute, obviously.


08:54 RB: Oh, yeah.


08:54 LJ: And any of our West Michigan markets, some people commute from the lakeshore into downtown Grand Rapids or into Kalamazoo or wherever they’re going to go, but that’s the long commute comparatively to being in LA, and it’s an hour and a half to get five minutes.


09:09 RB: That’s exactly right. What we would think of as a five minute or five mile commute can take a very long time in other areas. And again, if you’ve never been outside of West Michigan, you may not understand that here in West Michigan, when we say, “Oh it’s about a 40 minute drive..” Then that also means it’s about 40 miles away. That’s not the way… So minutes equal miles here, that’s not the way other people in other cities, that is not how traffic is discussed. In West Michigan, the average commute in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties is between 20 and 25 minutes, that’s incredible. And especially when you think about people coming from these other areas, if you have an hour and a half, hour and 15 minutes, even an hour commute to go to a 40-minute commute that’s fantastic.


09:50 RB: Well, now suddenly in West Michigan a 40-minute commute, think about where your job is, now think about what radius that is opened up to where you can live. So if you want to live in an urban downtown, in a suburban cul de sac, in a rural area with land, or if you want to have a lake front living, you have all four of those options. You could live in all four of those settings just move once a year and still have the same job. And people just don’t understand that. They are either coming from outside of the area, or again, if you’re here and you’ve never been anywhere else to realize what a positive that is for our community.


10:22 LJ: Tell me a little bit about your background and how did you get involved in really wanting to impact how people work?


10:32 RB: I think the funny thing is, when I think back, and people always ask, “How did you get into non-profit?” Or, “How did you get in Hello West Michigan?” The college that I graduated from very much had a service mentality and so a lot of people that I was going to school with, wanted to work for a non-profit, but that’s never where I saw myself. I always saw myself either at an advertising agency or marketing for a corporation, that was just where I visualized myself. And when I was going to school at appliance college, I worked in their career services office. At the time Career Services was also with counseling and wellness and mental wellness. And so it was really sort of an interesting department to market for because you’re doing career prep on one side but then you’re also doing mental well-being on the other side. It was almost like this work and life in the same place and I was marketing the same things across the same channels. And that was how I found the position at Hello West Michigan, which is a non-profit but we work with businesses, so it has this very business atmosphere, which is what I had imagined for myself, but at the same time, I’m also working for a non-profit, which is never what I thought I would be doing.


11:35 RB: But it was a great transition for me between marketing for career and counseling services to Hello West Michigan, because at Hello West Michigan we’re not just talking about your career and trying to connect you with jobs, we’re also talking about your life and both of those things are really, really important when you’re thinking about a relocation, because someone doesn’t just relocate for a great job. You can be actively recruited, a company will call you up and say, “Hey we have this great opportunity for you, we like your skills, we think you’d be a great fit.” That’s all new and exciting on the career side, but you’re not going to relocate just for a great job, you’re going to relocate to live in a great community, and especially when there’s a significant other or a family involved in that decision, it’s going to be the right choice for everybody. And only one person’s working that job that you’re moving for. So again, all of those other factors really have to fit for the community on the community side with that family. And so, that for me was kind of a great transition, or a great segue between marketing for career and counseling services into really marketing the lifestyle and career opportunities of West Michigan.


12:36 LJ: It truly is about balance and blending. I like to say blending because you can balance something, but then fall.


12:43 RB: Right.


12:43 LJ: Right, but if you’re intentionally saying that, “I’m going to make my life and work,” including everybody who’s around you, a part of that, it makes a huge difference for support later.


12:56 RB: That’s a great way to put it.


12:57 LJ: So tell me about support later, because that to me has to be a critical component of once someone arrives and they have this new job… You’ve heard West Michigan… West Michigan can be known as an extremely giving, loving, friendly, wonderful place. And it also can be, “Well, this is my area over here. I’m in this little area over here, and it’s mine,” and that’s wherever you go in the world. Are there other things in support groups that help or is that through the company that you reach out to give ideas for re-locators?


13:36 RB: So this is something where listeners today, every single person can help with this, because I think if you have never relocated you don’t know what that process is like. Unfortunately, relocation, the stress level ranks up there with death and divorce, which is not the best bed fellows but…


13:53 LJ: Really.


13:53 RB: Yes, it does. Relocation… It’s a big process and it’s a long process. And so when you think about those support systems that are in place that could be at the company, it could be employee resource groups, hopefully there’s some sort of mentorship or buddy program. All companies should really think about if you’re relocating people with any sort of frequency, you need to have those relocation resources in place, and not just kind of educational resources and information, but a person.


14:22 LJ: Great idea.


14:23 RB: A person, people, groups, people that your new relocatee can talk to, but then it goes farther than that. There certainly has to be motivation on the new comer’s part to want to get integrated and to want to try more than once. I think that’s a place where sometimes new relocatees will fail is they might go to a networking event once or twice and say, “You know what? Maybe I had one conversation or two, but it didn’t go anywhere from there, so I give up.” So there’s gotta be motivation on that part.


14:51 LJ: Two-way street.


14:51 RB: Then on the other side is, again, the listeners here, anyone can help with this. If you see a newcomer, if you meet a newcomer, you have to be welcoming, and more than just kind of the nice welcome, I’m going to say hi to you on the street, which is what West Michigan is known for, but also having a conversation; you know what, if they’re new in your office. Invite them out to lunch, even if you’re not their assigned buddy or that part of that employee resource group.


15:16 LJ: If they’re your neighbor.


15:18 RB: If they’re a neighbor, that’s exactly right. I mean think about ways that you can really introduce people, maybe it’s not you hanging out with them but making introductions to others on your street, whatever you’re comfortable with. But everyone really has to be on board with that, otherwise, that’s when that integration and that relocation doesn’t stick. A person might come, but if they only stay for six months to a year, then that was not successful.


15:40 LJ: So I’ll tell you, you can be successful. I know how you became successful, it’s an amazing conversation Rachel. Rachel is a 40 under 40 business leader. I’m telling you right now, yeah, she is.


15:50 RB: Thank you.


15:51 LJ: And you can tell why. So listen, if you would like to participate, get involved, help individuals become really entrenched into West Michigan, just contact Hello West Michigan.


16:01 RB: Yep, hellowestmichigan.com.


16:03 LJ: It’s as easy as that. Thank you so much.


16:04 RB: Thank you.


16:06 LJ: We are talking finance to fitness, we’ve got it all covered. This was a great day and I hope you’re having a great day. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson. Money, I’m home. Bringing your money home.


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