Lots Of Virtual Hospitality

March 25, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — A recent survey done by PricewaterhouseCoopers confirmed that technology is playing a bigger role in the convention and tradeshow industry each year.

The survey, with respondents from 100 convention centers on five continents, found that cities, convention bureaus and convention-center managers are using the Internet to market themselves. The survey also found that meeting planners are working online with suppliers, bureaus and building managers; that exhibitors and attendees are registering online; and that new online data-storage devices are regularly being created.

“From the perspective of meeting planners and convention centers, the impact of technology on the industry has influenced key areas such as facility marketing, event planning, registration and the ability to host many new high-tech events,” said Rob Canton, senior manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau and SMG, which runs DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena, must have read the survey, as both are pretty much on the cutting edge of this virtual technology. In fact, the two are separately unwrapping four new Web sites this week. Three are from SMG and one is from the CVB. But the sole new CVB site is the third the bureau has launched in less than a year.

The CVB plans to debut BringItToGrandRapids.com today, March 28. The site is aimed at local residents and grew from the Hometown Hero program that honored local residents for their help in convincing groups to meet here. The site thanks them for their past efforts and encourages them to keep up the good work.

“Our No. 1 source of new business leads is coming from our community,” said Bureau President Steve Wilson.

CVB Marketing Director Janet Korn said the thought behind the new site was to give people an idea of what it takes to bring a meeting here — without having to contact someone on the bureau’s sales staff — and to supplement some of the sales and marketing efforts that the CVB already has underway.

“We search for people that can help bring conventions here. They often have lots of questions and we need to have some resources to be able to refer them to,” she said.

Korn added that the new site gives the bureau a new marketing tool.

“We’ve lived in the printed-brochure world and we’re moving away from that. We can send someone an e-mail link to check out the site to see if they’re willing to help us.”

What the bureau hopes residents will do, especially those who are board members, is think about the groups they belong to and figure out if any future meetings could be held here. These groups might range from a business association that meets every year to a cluster of collectors that gets together every few years to talk about their hobby.

“We need their help because the best way to book conventions is through strong local support,” said Korn.

On Thursday, new Web sites for DeVos Place, Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall are scheduled to pop up. SMG Marketing Director Lynne Ike said the new versions of the convention center and arena sites will give each building a better and more distinctive look and their own identities. The site for the performance hall is its first, as until this week the hall was part of the DeVos Place Web site.

“We’re real anxious to get it completed,” said Ike.

Meeting planners will be able to download forms and examine floor plans at the DeVos Place site. Group tickets will be easier to buy at the new arena site, and the performance hall will be virtually separated from the convention center.

“In the past, DeVos Performance Hall was just a place inside a building, and we wanted to get away from that,” said Rich MacKeigan, SMG general manager.

ISG of Holland hosts the three new SMG sites. Q LTD of Ann Arbor designed the trio.

Ike hinted that another Web site may be coming from SMG in the future. She said this one would be built for the Steelcase Ballroom that opened in DeVos Place last month, as inquiries about leasing space in the 40,000-square-foot room have been brisk.

“We almost need another site for the ballroom,” she said.

The CVB pulled back the cyber curtains on MeetGrandRapids.com last year, which is geared to lure conventions to DeVos Place. The site offers meeting planners information on gathering here and allows them to get a proposal on what it would cost them to meet here. The site also has information on accommodations, restaurants and things to do.

The bureau debuted GrandRapidsAttendee.com in June for meeting planners who have already booked DeVos Place. The site has a streaming-video invitation that a planner can e-mail to potential delegates urging them to attend. Planners can also use the site to keep attendees from booking hotel rooms that aren’t part of the group’s package.

“We’ve tried to address all the questions that an attendee might have,” said Korn.

The Community Media Center designed and maintains the bureau sites, including the VisitGrandRapids.org site for tourists.

Thirty-eight conventions are booked for DeVos Place this year and four more are on the bureau’s “maybe” list. Through 2011, 144 meetings have been scheduled.

Still, the CVB is hoping that a few more Hometown Heroes can bring it to Grand Rapids and bump that number up a few notches.

“We need to get our city to come up on someone’s radar screen,” said Korn. “And it’s so much more genuine when it comes from a member of their association than if it’s just another selling destination, because everybody is selling.”           

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