Getting Ready To Raise The Curtain

October 31, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Knock on wood. Excuse the SMG management team if they may be doing a little bit of that over the next few weeks.

Their nervous knocking will simply be a natural reaction to the much-anticipated opening of the brand-spanking new DeVos Place exhibit space — all 160,000 square feet of it.

The 7,800 delegates of the Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo will christen the new $212 convention center Thursday, Dec. 4.

And that first event could very well turn out to be the most nerve-rattling show that SMG General Manager Rich MacKeigan and his staff will ever experience at DeVos Place.

"Every time I've been involved with opening a new building, there are things that definitely go awry," said MacKeigan.

"We are opening with the event that taxes our staff and venue more than any other that we host. So we are opening with our most taxing event, there is no doubt about it."

Add to the debut the fact that the old Grand Center — which dutifully served as the city's convention address for decades — could be laid out in its entirety inside the new building's exhibit space alone.

The larger building, along with the chance to host bigger tradeshows and even multiple shows in adjoining halls at the same time, meant SMG had to redesign a few departments and add a few maintenance personnel to manage the new facility.

That revamping began earlier this year with Steve Miller being named sales manager and Sandy Thomley being promoted to events director. Lynn Ike, Jim Watt and Chris Machuta still head the marketing, operations and accounting staffs, respectively.

"Other than adding to the maintenance staff, it's really been a shoring up of our existing staff and positions to ensure that they've got the support and resources necessary to do the best possible job for the new venue," said MacKeigan.

Between now and then, MacKeigan and his event directors will be going over things two and maybe three times before the exhibitors start moving in on Nov. 29.

Even the most minute items — like every light switch and outlet —will be checked and re-checked to make sure that everything is in working order.

"The other thing we're doing is training," said MacKeigan.

"We grew our maintenance staff, which for our facility is the electricians, the engineers, and the HVAC technicians. They are very, very entrenched in training, right now."

Training is necessary because the new building contains state-of-the-art, computer-driven lighting, heating and cooling systems — equipment the Grand Center's designers and builders couldn't have imagined.

"Obviously, you don't get fluent at any type of new language — and this really is a brand new language for our folks — until you immerse yourself in it. So we'll probably still have lots of bugs to work out for the first few months that we're in the building," said MacKeigan.

"But we want to get as many of those potential bugs worked out prior to being in the building," he added.

And they should be in the building in time, which is a huge relief for the SMG crew, as the exhibit space and loading docks will be ready for the woodworkers.

"Everything is tracking well for the opening," said Joe Erhardt, president of Erhardt Construction, half of the Erhardt-Hunt Group managing the building of the new facility.

"All the inspections are tracking very well. We're not cutting corners on anything," he added.

Something else that is tracking very well is the word about the new building.

Expo Management magazine recently named Grand Rapids as one of the 15 fastest-growing convention cities.

The ranking from the national trade publication put Grand Rapids in a class of much larger cities that included Denver, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and New York.

"This couldn't have been timed better as we open our new facility," said Steve Wilson, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In addition to the woodworkers, three other events will take place next month in DeVos Place. The Michigan Horticultural Society and the Blueberry Growers of Michigan will hold conventions there, while Gordon Food Service will hold its annual meeting there.

Despite the nervous energy that MacKeigan, his directors and their staffs will feel over the next month, they can all relax a bit knowing that the woodworkers are the opening act.

"They are exceptional people to deal with. They have been very cooperative in terms of working with us to try to get into the new venue," said MacKeigan.

"They have been a partner to the financial package to get the incentive fee paid to get the building accelerated and ready for their move-in."

To lock in the convention, the space had to be done five weeks earlier than scheduled. That meant offering the project manager and building crews an incentive for overtime, an additional $275,000 above the stated construction cost.

The woodworking group picked up $45,000 of that tab and then paid $125,000 in advance for leasing the space.

The woodworkers, who are suppliers to the industrial woodworking industry, will be in town until Dec. 7.

Their delegates will come from a 300-mile radius, while the exhibitors will arrive from 40 states and 10 countries.

All totaled, they will deposit about $1 million in the local economy over their four-day stay.

"They have a spirit of cooperation, and they acknowledge that this will not be a flawless event," said MacKeigan.

"However, it is our goal that from the attendees' perspective, it will be flawless."

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