Could Katrina Fill DeVos Place

September 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Now known for the terrifying flight of the refugees who sought shelter there and FEMA Director Michael Brown’s infamous confession that the agency knew nothing of their plight, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans was until a month ago an icon of the convention and meetings industry.

Boasting the largest contiguous-space exhibit hall in the nation, it was regularly chosen as a key anchor in the rotation of most major association and corporate meetings, and was tremendously popular for small and mid-sized conventions and meetings, as well.

In addition to the convention center, New Orleans offered seven other distinct non-hotel convention facilities: the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans Arena, JohnA.AlarioSr.EventCenter, the PontchartrainCenter, New OrleansCulturalCenter, University of New Orleans Homer L. Hitt Alumni and VisitorsCenter, and the UNO Kiefer Lakefront Arena.

For the months of September and October alone, there were 116 conventions and corporate meetings scheduled among these facilities, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention Bureau, not including the events scheduled at the city’s many hotel facilities.

On Sept. 1, New Orleans, the nation’s fifth busiest destination for conventions and corporate meetings, cancelled all events through Nov. 1. In all likelihood, all events through early 2006 will be displaced as well, putting hundreds of events and millions of travelers back on the market.

While some of these are small regional affairs, such as the 1,200-attendee Louisiana State Office of Cultural Development annual meeting or the 225-attendee Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development annual meeting, a great many are large events, including meetings of the American Society of Microbiology (16,000), National Electrical Contractors Association (6,000), Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (11,250) and AARP (20,000).

According to George Helmstead, vice president of sales for Grand Rapids/Kent County CVB, two of the larger events very nearly came to Grand Rapids last week.

“So far we’ve had two calls,” he told the Business Journal last week. “They were much larger conventions and they found other sites, but we still could get something. I expect more calls.”

Sweet Adelines International is managed through a firm that has used

DeVos Place
in the past, and that group was the first of the two that contacted Helmstead.

“They were calling all over the country looking for someone that could handle them, size-wise,” he said. Like most large events, commitments to speakers and exhibitors prevented a reschedule. Had the city been able to accommodate the event Oct. 4-8, it would have brought 10,000 visitors to Grand Rapids

Instead, the group chose the Cobo Arena in Detroit

In a press release promoting the victory, Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Larry Alexander welcomed the group to Detroit, and promised a “remarkable and memorable experience in a city world renowned for our musical heritage.”

“For groups in October, we’re pretty tight on space,” Helmstead said. “We couldn’t offer them anything until the third week of November.”

The other organization to contact Helmstead, APICS, The Education Society for Resource Management, chose Kansas City, Mo., for its 5,000-attendee conference Oct. 14-19.

“The (

DeVos Place
) ballroom can handle a meeting that size,” Helmstead said of APICS. “If they wanted a meal function, we’d have to put them in the exhibit hall, but we can do it. (For Sweet Adelines) we were looking at using the (Van Andel) arena.”

Although she wasn’t involved in the relocation, Wendy Kremers, senior supply chain leader for Steelcase Inc., sits on APICS’ national board and conference committee. She wonders if Grand Rapids could even support a meeting of that size.

“A constraint for Grand Rapids is the number of hotel rooms in proximity of the convention center,” she said. “The issue, not just for Grand Rapids but other cities that have phenomenal convention centers, is that with the number of people that come in for this event — 3,000 to 5,000 people including exhibitors — I don’t believe Grand Rapids can handle that from a hotel room perspective.”

She said she believed that many of the attendees would have been forced to stay in hotels as far away as

28th Street
, an inconvenient distance for APICS’ continuous shuttle runs.

New Orleans events locked into dates in the coming months will likely be rescheduled within the week, Helmstead said. He expects a rush of events seeking new sites when details of the city’s reconstruction timetable are released.

He said Grand Rapids would likely not have the flexibility for groups over 1,000.

In an e-mail to the Destination Marketing Association International, the New Orleans convention bureau sent out a distress signal asking cities to trade future meetings of displaced groups through 2009.

New Orleans is not the only city affected. Events throughout the GulfCoast have been canceled due to hurricane damage. Others, such as those at the GeorgeR.BrownConvention Center in Houston, have displaced conventions in order to house refugees.

It appears that the competition will for displaced events will be steepest for displaced events among second tier cities such as Kansas City and Madison, Wis.

According to the Chicago Sun Times last Wednesday,

McCormick Place
has already turned away two dozen conventions. More than 30 groups contacted the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, according to spokeswoman Erika Yowell. She told USA Today that the fall is a busy convention season in Las Vegas, and not all the groups can be accommodated.

The front-runners have been Dallas, where the CVB is pursuing a dozen large conventions, and Atlanta, which now will host the 16,000-attendee American Society of Anesthesiologists later this month.    

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