Vital BehindScenes Convention Work

March 26, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — With more regional and national groups looking at coming to DeVos Place than what the old Grand Center had, more focus is being put on the pre-promotional aspects of the local convention business.

And that behind-the-scenes duty falls to the convention services department of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tim Nelson manages that department.

Nelson isn’t directly involved with bringing groups here. The CVB sales team, led by George Helmstead, handles that effort. Once a convention is booked, however, Nelson steps in to meet with planners about a year before the group is set to come to the city.

But since the larger exhibit space at DeVos Place has opened, Nelson now finds himself having those meetings more than a year before the event is to take place.

“That bigger space has brought a different focus for the bureau. We’re out selling more regional and national groups as opposed to the smaller state groups, even though we have a lot of state groups here and I work with them very closely,” said Nelson.

“But we also have a lot of regional and national coming in, which leads to a little problem,” he added.

That tiny problem is that regional and national meeting planners aren’t as familiar with this city as they are with, say, Orlando. They’re unaware of what the city has to offer in terms of entertainment, shopping and sightseeing, a predicament the bureau has answered by putting more emphasis on the pre-promotion side of the business.

“I go out to a lot of conventions the year before they come to Grand Rapids and I actually tell people what to expect in Grand Rapids, so that the attendees will want to come here. We do a lot of that attendance-building type of thing,” said Nelson.

Building attendance involves handling just about every convention-related question that a client could possibly ask. Sometimes Nelson can provide those answers with a presentation to a group while they’re holding a convention in another locale. He did that in Cleveland a month ago. Other times questions are answered face-to-face.

The two most-asked questions are whether there are restaurants downtown and where shopping can be found.

“Generally speaking, we have good answers to their questions. I’m happy to say that we have over 50 restaurants downtown. We have a very walkable convention district here and some people love to hear that,” said Nelson.

Convention Services also arranges shuttles for conventions, tells meeting planners where they can get materials printed, and informs them as to who caters meals. Then there are the amenities of the new building, which requires the department to lay out the pre-staging areas, the loading docks, where attendees will register and how the exhibit area will look.

“Art Craft Display does most of the decorating in DeVos Place and we work pretty closely with them because we’re working on the same things,” said Nelson.

Nelson also oversees all the local information that attendees receive when they come here. Four bureau volunteers, who are trained by Convention Services, were set up at DeVos Place for the Michigan Association for Computer Users and Learning meeting earlier this month, and they offered the 4,500 attending the conference dining maps, visitor guides and information on events that were going on while they were here.

“We call them our stars. We meet monthly with them and update them on what is going on,” said Nelson. “They function as goodwill ambassadors for us.”

Nelson also works closely with another group of people who are quite possibly the core of the city’s convention business. They’re the local individuals who try to convince a group they’re affiliated with to come here.

The bureau salutes them as “hometown heroes” every year, and Nelson gets well acquainted with each one.

“The planning details for the meeting don’t fall to them. We recognize that the locals also have lives, jobs and everything else. I work very hard to keep them from getting swamped with these details, and I get to know them very well,” he said.

“A lot of our ‘hometown heroes,’ a lot of these local contacts, have been with us through more than one convention. If they have a bad experience on their first convention, they’re not going to bring us another one.”

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