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In search of the big catch

The behind-the-scenes work that brings big events and visitor dollars to Des Moines


The NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Dew Tour. The Bio World Congress International Fuel Ethanol Workshop. The Ironman competition. The U.S./Canada Lions Leadership Forum.

Those are just a few of the big events that have come to Des Moines in recent years, bringing thousands of visitors who spend their money on hotels, restaurants, local businesses and other attractions. 

But what does it take to lure big-ticket events and business conferences to Des Moines? The Business Record sat down with leaders at Catch Des Moines and spoke with those representing some of the groups that have come to the metro to pull back the curtain on the courting process that’s needed if Des Moines wants to find itself at the dance.

This three-part series looks at the steps of what is often a multiyear process to bring some of the biggest events to Central Iowa.


The Des Moines metro has grown and evolved over the past 20 years, and that has helped efforts to bring more events to the community. The construction of Wells Fargo Arena and Hy-Vee Hall in 2005 added a 16,000-seat arena and larger convention and trade show space to the region. The construction of new hotels added both rooms and meeting space. The growth of the restaurant scene downtown provided more options for visitors, and attractions like the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the Western Gateway Park have provided amenities for visitors when they’re not busy attending meetings or other events.

Much of that change has been the result of a concerted plan by community leaders to help the community grow and make it an attractive place to live, work and visit.

Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines, who came to Des Moines in the fall of 2000, said there was a change beginning to happen in the early 2000s that transformed the city into what it is today.

“You look back to those days, downtown was pretty slow,” he said. “There were a lot of people working downtown from 8 to 5, but at 5 o’clock it was roll up the sidewalks and everybody’s going back to the ’burbs. Within a year of being here, the discussion started to talk about building this new arena and maybe an events center to go along with that, and that trickled into a new library and a new science center. … Community pride was beginning to swell a little bit because there wasn’t a lot of community pride back then, either. There’s a lot of community pride now.

“All these major things started happening and the suburban areas really started to expand and grow, and there was this big announcement of this new big shopping mall in West Des Moines called Jordan Creek,” Edwards said. “You look at that place: [it’s] nice, and it’s an entertainment mecca for the metro.”

He said the entire metro has exploded, and “the transformation has just been incredible.”

Edwards said corporate leadership, in conjunction with local elected officials, was a driving force to make the community grow to attract and retain employees, “and that’s exactly what they did.”

The growth in recreation and aquatic centers, indoor go-kart tracks and trampoline facilities, along with expansion of facilities to accommodate the growth in youth sports, have all played a role in the evolution of the region, Edwards said.

“And we’re kind of in the second era of that now with the new RecPlex in West Des Moines opening, the project in Grimes underway, the project in Johnston, and the [Lauridsen] Skatepark,” he said. “They’re all kind of niche markets, but they’re phenomenal. They all help the community and they help people who want to live here, but they help us, too, because they enable us to bring events in here that need those facilities.”

Edwards described the growth over the past two decades as “surreal.”

“It started and then it just kept going,” he said. “It was incredible. All that stuff that was going on and you thought, gosh, what can we do next?”

greg edwards
Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines, is in his 22nd year with the organization. Photo by Duane Tinkey

Looking back

Greg Edwards leads local visitor, tourism industry through rapid growth, debilitating pandemic

Greg Edwards has been at the helm of Catch Des Moines, watching the community grow and evolve as his team has worked to put Des Moines on the map and draw events and business conferences to the community.

He came to Des Moines in 2000 after leading the convention and visitors bureau in his hometown of Peoria, Ill. Now, 22 years later, Edwards said he’s still ready for the challenges the job brings, and is looking for that next big win for the community.

Edwards cut his teeth in the hotel industry before transitioning to convention and visitors bureaus. 

He started as a hotel restaurant bar manager in Peoria and then joined Marriott, working at hotels in Des Moines, where he met his wife, and in Overland Park, Kan. He made the transition to the convention and visitor’s bureau in Overland Park as director of marketing. He later took the top job at the Peoria Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he worked before a headhunter reached out about the job at what was the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In addition to learning more about what it takes to bring big-ticket events to the region, the Business Record sat down with Edwards to ask about his leadership style and his thoughts on where Des Moines has been, where it’s going and his future with Catch Des Moines.

At a glance

Age: 67
Family: Married, four children and three grandchildren
Education: University of Northern Colorado, degree in speech and communication
Hometown: Grew up in Peoria, IL, now lives in greater Des Moines
Activities: Tinkering around the house, working in the yard, playing golf, spending time with family

Here is some of what we learned.

Describe your management style.

I would say I am a big team player. I’m a team leader. I’m a consensus-builder. I can be told I am wrong, and I am often wrong, and my leadership team has no problem in telling me I’m wrong. My background with Marriott taught me so much about how to treat your employees.You treat your employees like you treat your family. If you treat your employees right, in turn they will treat the customer and everyone they encounter right.

How has the convention and visitors industry changed?

It’s changed a lot. When I first got into the industry I went to conventions and it was old, white men. While we were being run by old white men, there were thousands of women in the industry. Hotel sales people, marketing people coming into CVB roles, and then we started seeing women come into our industry as CEOs and things like that. So that was one big change, just the diversity of our organizations began to change. Another big change was that a lot of CVB people came out of hotels, and that has changed. Now we get people from all walks of life. On my team, I have a couple of people that were in a hotel business, but for the most part, they may have some other event experience but they’ve had strong marketing experience somewhere else. We’re also seeing more young people involved in our organizations. You look at our marketing team. They’re young and they’re creative and they know all this stuff about digital marketing and social media. I’ll bet once a week our social media people are out doing TikTok videos, so there’s all these new avenues to get our message out.

After 22 years, what keeps you motivated?

Challenges. I’m still challenged. We came off a devastating last two years with COVID and the downturn, so now it’s building up again. That’s what brought me to Des Mones. Although I was challenged in Peoria, I saw a real future in Des Moines. We moved here in the dead of winter, gloomy, dark, and I scratched my head a few times. Have I made the right move? I’m moving my family, and my kids were pretty well settled, but then things started popping. Within a couple of months of being here, Polk County called and asked me to come over for a meeting and we started talking about building this new arena and building a new events center, and that excited me and I could see the vision there. Then all these little pieces started happening downtown. The library moved out and the World Food Prize moved in. We built a new library. The Science Center came downtown. All these buildings were being built. Insurance companies and financial institutions started upgrading their buildings. Tons of people were working downtown again. Downtown was starting to become a vibrant place. The ’burbs started to explode. All these pieces started to fall together and it was like, whoa, we are building a huge metro area and a huge opportunity for visitors. I’m still challenged. Next March we will again host the NCAA tournament, which has always been a crown jewel for the community and for me personally, so I would like to stay around to see that through. 

Are you putting together a plan to retire soon?

My wife and I have talked about it. We’re in the very preliminary stages of talking about retirement. There’s some good things to come. Even next summer there’s things we’re working on right now that I may want to see come to reality. I also know getting older I would like to slow down and spend more time with my family and traveling more, things like that.

What are some of the lessons from the pandemic that Catch Des Moines has learned and will take forward?

We’ve seen devastation in the travel industry. Maybe the first time was 9/11, especially in the big markets like New York, Chicago, Miami. We saw a drop in occupancies and visitorships but it wasn’t like those major cities. Then there was the recession of 2008-09, and Des Moines always kind of remained above the radar on some of that stuff, so we were blessed that way. 

Everyone in our industry had to figure out how to continue to stay in front of the customer, the leisure traveler who someday will make the trip again, the meeting planners, the sports planners, and assure them when they’re ready, we’re ready.

Then came the pandemic hit and we had never seen anything like this. Your hearts were broken when you saw the thousands of employees laid off, hotel employees, restaurant, retail, all the different travel-related jobs. So that was a challenge. How do we build this back up? 

So I think everyone in our industry had to figure out how to continue to stay in front of the customer, the leisure traveler who someday will make the trip again, the meeting planners, the sports planners, and assure them when they’re ready, we’re ready. We did a lot of messaging, but because our budgets were cut so low we did a lot of social media and a lot of free stuff that we got word out with, and it worked. Once people were ready to travel again they knew Iowa was a pretty open state. They knew Des Moines was a safe, clean city. We already messaged all of that. It gave us a whole new look at how we market and advertise. I think it’s an important part of the future. Although we’re almost back to normal, business travel isn’t quite back to where it once was, and some people still are not ready to travel yet. And until we get to that point, once they’re ready to travel we want them to consider coming to Des Moines.


Michael Crumb

Michael Crumb is a senior staff writer at Business Record. He covers economic development, transportation, energy & environment, culture, sales & marketing.

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