Helmstead Finds His Place

December 1, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — George Helmstead will have Christmas come twice this month.

Like everyone else, he has Dec. 25 marked on his calendar. But the vice president of sales for the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau will also feel a lot of holiday cheer on Thursday when he helps unwrap the exhibit space at DeVos Place.

“I think it will mark a pride of community, accomplishment, and partnership because it took, in my mind, all three to get this accomplished,” he said.

Helmstead played a key role in convincing the Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo to christen the new $212 million convention center, which, by the way, the group does in a very big way on Dec. 4.

Nearly 8,000 delegates and 350 exhibits will fill every square inch of the center’s 160,000 square feet. It’s a full house for a debut performance in a place where size does matter.

“They are an excellent group,” Helmstead said of the woodworkers. “They come here every other year. But they outgrew the old hall, so more than likely they would have moved to another location.

“They had a floor plan for 900 exhibits. Some take more than one space and that’s how we come up with 350 exhibitors. But there is space there for 900 individual exhibits, if they wanted that,” added Helmstead, a veteran in the hospitality business.

Helmstead began his career with Westin Hotels. He stayed with the Westin chain for 15 years, a tenure that provided him with many insights into servicing customers. Helmstead left Westin for a managerial post with Marriott. He spent eight years working for that firm, gaining valuable management skills along the way, before joining the Detroit Convention Bureau for six years as its vice president of sales.

“That gave me a strong background on how convention bureaus operate with the city and the community. It led to this wonderful break here to open a new facility,” he said.

“So I’m looking at four career breaks, myself.”

Helmstead came on board with the local bureau in October 2001. He oversees all the group sales efforts for meetings and conventions and he also puts together the group tours the bureau is becoming noted for. For these, Helmstead brings in meeting planners from throughout the country and shows them DeVos Place, the available hotels, and the sights across West Michigan.

“I love it,” he said of his position.

“I love the city. I love being on the west side.”

But despite the success the Hackensack, N.J., native has had in selling the new convention center, he prefers to deflect much of the credit from himself to those with whom he works. Helmstead made a point to emphasize that the 19 national conventions that are booked for DeVos Place in the coming years are only booked because of a solid team effort to bring them here.

“The community here is so much more engaged in what we do and so much more cooperative in our sales efforts. There hasn’t been a person, or a department, or a group that we approached that we haven’t gotten complete cooperation from.”

He said the bureau’s sales efforts are backed by terrific marketing support, funded by Kent County, and that the CVB gets considerable assistance from the Convention and Arena Authority, the seven-member board which operates and “owns” the new building.

Helmstead said he was also excited to have the opportunity to sell the city to national groups, something he wouldn’t have been able to do very convincingly without the extra space that comes with DeVos Place. So far, a total of 91 conventions are booked in the building through 2013.

“We have 19 national conventions out of the 91 and before that we had none. So I think we’re getting there. It’s a slow process to get the word out nationally, but I think we’re doing a great job. The word is getting out.”

So why does someone want to make the hospitality business their life’s work? If 10 people were asked that question there would probably be 10 different answers because the industry involves a little bit of everything. For Helmstead, though, he likes it because it gives him the chance to work with people rather than with numbers or products.

“It’s a fun industry and I enjoy the people side for a career vs. an operational side or a financial side. I felt it was more people oriented. And I felt more people oriented. And it was a perfect match for me,” he said.

Helmstead and Jane, his wife, like to travel when they get the chance. The California coastline community of Big Sur is their favorite destination outside of West Michigan. It holds fond memories for both because that is where they were married. The Helmsteads have two children, Trever and Marisa, and George likes to bike, play golf, and do some downhill skiing on Michigan’s slopes.

While Helmstead plans to pause a little this week and celebrate the holiday a bit early at the new building’s first event, he realizes that he can’t rest too long as his job is far from being done.

The next year will be just as crucial for him as the last one was. The final stage of the center’s construction will be starting to wrap up just about this time next year, and that means he will have even more space to fill a little more than a year from now.

“I just see myself enjoying the joy and the challenge of bringing this thing to fruition. We still have another section to open and we still have more work to do to get the word out nationally to bring in more regional and national conventions,” said Helmstead.

“And I think we have more work to do locally, to let the local individuals who belong to associations know that we need their help and cooperation to bring their conventions to Grand Rapids.”    

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