Former Chamber director died Jan. 3
Bob Hastings didn’t do small.
“Small” is a hard thing to do when you stand six-foot-seven and dominate a room by walking through the door. He didn’t do small goals, small projects or small thinking. The former executive director of the Door County Chamber of Commerce (now Destination Door County) used that mentality to push new and often controversial ideas for the county at a critical time in its evolution as a tourist destination.
“He was larger than life,” recalled Cindy Weber, who served on the Chamber’s board during Hastings’ tenure from 1990 to 1997. “You never wanted to miss a Chamber board meeting because you never knew what he was going to bring to a meeting. He was always challenging us to step outside the box.”
Hastings, who died Jan. 3 at age 72, is remembered by those who worked with him as a community and business leader whose many endeavors remain visible in the county today.
There’s the Festival of Blossoms, which he cooked up to help extend the tourism season into the spring. To do that, he decided he would help create more blossoms by ordering tens of thousands of daffodil bulbs to sell to local businesses and plant along roadsides. Those bulbs still bloom today, many of them planted personally by Hastings.
There was also his public role in leading a campaign to ban billboards throughout the county.
“He made it a mission to get rid of them,” recalled Bill Chaudoir, the former director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation whose first office was provided by the Chamber. “Obviously that was very controversial, especially for a Chamber president.”
But to Hastings, the fight was about preserving what made the county unique and valuable: the natural environment and the vistas it provided to locals and visitors. He saw billboards – particularly those along the highway south of Sturgeon Bay – as a blight on the county’s doorstep that damaged first impressions.
It was controversial not only because of the business component, but also because of the messenger. Some saw it as hypocritical, coming from a man who had earned his business stripes through development, most notably of the Country Walk Shops and Churchill Inn at the entrance to Sister Bay. But Hastings wasn’t anti-development – he just had his own opinion of what good development was, and he wasn’t afraid to voice it.
“He wasn’t afraid to be out there and really push his agenda,” Weber said. “His heart was always in the right place, even if you disagreed with him.”
Hastings inherited his thick skin from his father, who served as Egg Harbor’s village president and owned the Egg Harbor Lodge. They would spend long hours talking about business ideas and ways to improve the county.
That kind of thinking led to taking an early stab at a thing people were calling the World Wide Web. Though many in the industry didn’t realize it yet, travel was experiencing a seismic shift during the early 1990s. Anne Lampert was the membership director at the Chamber when Hastings came on board, the end of an era when the organization would answer calls from potential visitors, send a printed guidebook, and hope they would make a reservation for a week or two a year for the following summer.
“Most of our members were in the Stone Age advertising-wise,” Lampert said. “You put a sign on the side of the road, put an ad in the Chamber guidebook, and maybe some newspaper ads.”
The Weather Channel was already changing habits. Instead of booking far in advance, travelers were watching the weather all week and making last-minute travel decisions.
“People were scared to death about how to handle all of this,” Lampert said. “I was talking to members all the time and could see the level of fear.”
Enter Greg Swain, a young local software developer who had created Lodgical Solution, a program that allowed hotels to manage reservations online. Hastings asked him to expand the software for the Chamber, connecting innkeepers throughout the county to create a real-time dashboard of local vacancies. In 1993, Hastings brought Swain and a group of other local minds together to see if they could create a local internet service. A year later, Rick Gordon had a dial-up service off the ground.
For Hastings and the Chamber, this opened a world of possibility. They purchased and installed touch-screen kiosks throughout the county, where tourists who were searching for last-second rooms could search availability countywide simply and quickly. It was the first such system in the country.
“That’s everywhere now, but we were the first destination in the country to have that capability,” Hastings said in 2014.
“Bob was really aggressive,” said Swain, who credits Hastings for giving him a base to grow Bay Lakes Information Systems into an international property management software provider. “It was Bob’s passion for making something happen. But more importantly, it was him realizing he needed to bring people together to make something happen. He was instrumental in making that happen. He was the incubator, not a dictator.”
Lampert called Hastings a “force of nature” who was more interested in action than planning. They started the Door County Lighthouse Tour to build on a ready-made attraction, then handed it off to the Maritime Museum. The first shipyard tour followed. When it came time to create bike routes, Hastings helped to put up the signs personally, and might have started before the county had fully signed off on the signage.
“He was the kind of guy who would challenge you to do something outrageous and then just send you off to go do it,” Lampert said. “It was so empowering. We could try things and fall flat on our faces, and he was going to have our back.”
Swain said Hastings taught him about A/B testing before people were calling it A/B testing.
“The thing Bob did was, he was always trying things,” Swain said. “He was always throwing stuff at the wall, and if the results said it didn’t work, you move on and try again.”
One of the most important things Hastings realized, Swain said, is that being one county didn’t mean all areas of the county are the same.
“He saw that Gills Rock was different from Fish Creek, and that was different from Brussels,” Swain said. “So he used people from these different areas to serve on committees. These little gatherings made people understand each other. It was a bridge.”
Hastings’ time at the Chamber’s helm ended in 1997 when he left to found Door County Magazine. He went on to lead destination organizations in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and to found the Gloucester Blues Festival before retiring to Florida. But Door County was the place he loved, and his time on the peninsula the phase of his career he was proudest of, said his sister Liz Hastings.
“He was proud of how it all came together,” she said. “People would fight against his ideas. He had to work hard to win people over, but he was proud of earning the trust and respect of people in the community.”