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Assessment Would Fuel Image Campaign
An increase in the room tax that hotel and motel operators charge their customers, intended to would cover much of the bill for a $1.1 million annual marketing campaign to promote West Michigan to the nation as the place to play and work, appears well on its way to passage.
Certified results from an election among Kent County’s hotels and motels aren’t due until the end of the month. But based on results of the balloting through late last week, the proposal to raise the special marketing assessment on guest rooms in Kent County from 1 percent to 2 percent was receiving string support.
With two-thirds of the ballots returned and counted as of Thursday afternoon, Travel Michigan – the state agency that promotes Michigan’s $11.5 billion tourism industry and is administering the election - reported that the proposal so far has been “resoundingly supported by hotels, large and small, across this community,” said Steven Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We’re pleased to receive their endorsement on this,” Wilson said.
The increase would generate an estimated $850,000 a year toward the unprecedented effort to build a far greater awareness around the U.S. about what West Michigan has to offer to travelers and tourists.
The remaining $250,000 needed to pay for an annual awareness campaign would come from sponsors, presumably visitors bureaus in neighboring Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties. Organizations in those counties are unable to consider an increase in their special assessment because they already are at the 2 percent maximum levy.
That means visitors bureaus on the lakeshore will have to fund their share of the campaign’s cost out of their existing budgets or secure contributions from members.
Morris Rave, president of the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Area Visitors Bureau’s board of directors, is confident that some level of financial support for the campaign will come.
“It’s too good of an idea to say ‘no’ to,” said Rave, owner of the Kardomah Lodge bed and breakfast in Grand Haven.
The awareness campaign stems from a strategic-planning process the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau held during 2001. The idea is to unite travel bureaus and other organizations in the four counties to leverage their collective resources to better promote the entire region as a destination for conventions and leisure travel.
“We will benefit and we will grow and we will see the positive ripple effects for our communities,” Holland Mayor Al McGeehan said.
The goal of the initiative is to generate a 15-to-1 return on investment, with an ongoing $1 million national marketing effort generating $15 million in increased spending by visitors. Tourism presently represents an estimated $150 million economic impact in the four-county region.
“The role of the hospitality industry and its economic impact is about to escalate dramatically,” said David Frey of the Grand Action Committee.
With the development of Van Andel Arena in the 1990s and the ongoing development of the DeVos Place convention center in downtown Grand Rapids, as well as the attractiveness of Lake Michigan beaches and other destinations in West Michigan, organizers of the initiative say a collaborative effort on behalf of the entire region is needed.
The awareness initiative reminds Frey of the efforts 12 years ago to examine the need for an arena and convention center in Grand Rapids. The cultural and economic results of those projects “have greatly exceeded our hopes,” he said.
“We hold equally bold expectations for the results of this initiative,” Frey said.
Numerous communities around the nation are building or upgrading their own convention facilities, and competition for the convention and tourist dollar will only increase in the future, Wilson said.
“There are more options than ever before,” he said. “We have to differentiate ourselves.”
The bureau has hired Bill Siegel, of the Toronto-based market research and consulting firm Longwoods International, to develop the image campaign. Siegel has led similar efforts for Hawaii, Ontario, Colorado and Tampa, and last year received recognition from the Travel Industry Association of America for a campaign his firm developed for the Finger Lakes region of New York.
While developing a regional campaign is difficult given the traditionally competing interests, and given that the region has limited funding to tap, Siegel said he has a lot to work with. He considers Grand Rapids and West Michigan “a hidden jewel.” Budget issues also are overcome by “the power of ideas,” he said.
“I guarantee you the problem here is not the tourism product. It’s getting the message out,” Siegel said. “There’s a lot here. It is a surprise and we’re going to make it less of a surprise in the future.”
Siegel will begin by spending the next six months conducting market research and developing an image campaign, at a cost of $209,000, that begins in late fall with an initial $500,000 effort targeting larger, feeder communities around the nation. He’ll formulate the image and campaign by matching what the region has to offer with what travelers are seeking these days.
“They’re going to tell us what they want and then we’re going to look at your product and find a fit,” he said.
Some believe the campaign will yield greater dividends beyond the growth in the regional tourism economy.
Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie sees the cooperative nature of the initiative spilling over to other areas that are best addressed from a broader, regional perspective.
“It’s going to help bring us together,” Logie said.
It could help economic development in the region, too, said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Program. Generating a better image as a good place to visit also can help to promote West Michigan as a good place to work or locate a business, Klohs said.
Klohs sees the initiative particularly helpful in The Right Place Program’s effort to recruit high-tech businesses and workers to the area.
“It will add to my business tremendously,” she said. “Intellectual capital wants to go where it’s a great place to live.”