Bureau Captures Key Conference

February 15, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s almost like a particular prayer has been answered. And, believe it or not, heated sidewalks played a concrete part in that answer.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau has landed one of its most coveted conventions as the Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA) has agreed to hold its 2009 World Conference and Exposition to DeVos Place.

“We’re very excited and very proud, proud for Grand Rapids,” said CVB President Steve Wilson.

The booking is a significant piece of business for the CVB and the city for three reasons.

First, the RCMA will bring more than 1,400 meeting planners to Grand Rapids for five days in January 2009 and they should spend an estimated $1.3 million here over that period.

Second, the RCMA meeting solidifies the decision the CVB made last year when the bureau decided to direct much of its sales attention to drawing two markets here: hobby groups and religious organizations.

“This is really part of the beginning. This whole organization represents more than 3,000 meeting professionals across the country and 16,000 religious conferences. This is one way of us reaching much deeper into the religious conference market,” said Wilson.

Third, a successful RCMA meeting could result in other religious organizations choosing to hold their annual meetings here.

“In 2009, as we welcome RCMA to our region, it will be vitally important that our community extend warm hospitality. This conference will bring to Grand Rapids over 1,400 decision makers for future conventions,” said Mayor George Heartwell.

Wilson said capturing the conference was a collaborative effort led by the bureau, SMG and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, but also one that included a number of individuals and entities that don’t normally get involved in such a direct manner with selling the city.

“The event that we hosted last August, Gather by the River, involved many of our ecumenical leaders here in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. That was critical to our success,” said Wilson.

“Also, Calvin College had made a commitment to make their January Series collaborate with this event. Our mayor is an ordained minister and he did a video greeting that was customized for this group. We had a team that presented this proposal. They rehearsed it for over a month, and it was a very well planned and executed presentation,” he added.

In winning the RCMA meeting, the bureau’s bid beat those from four other cities. One of the competitors was San Antonio, which has a larger convention center, more awareness in the convention industry, and usually milder January weather than Grand Rapids has.

But River City has two features that are normally taken for granted by natives, but mean an awful lot to visitors in January — a skywalk and a snow melt system.

“We were clearly the underdog going into this and we were clearly prepared because we knew they were going to ask us about snow and ice. When we told them about the snow melt system, the heated sidewalks, that was big,” said Wilson.

“About two years ago, the same convention was in Pittsburgh and in January they had a huge snow storm. They didn’t have a skywalk system and the sidewalks between the various hotels and the convention center were full of snow and ice, which was really a negative for that convention. That was the first question that we were asked and we were prepared for it,” he added.

Since 2000, 61 religious conventions have been held here and the CVB has booked 15 more through 2010. Another 20 are currently considering proposals.

“We were extremely impressed by what Grand Rapids has to offer, including its rich religious heritage,” said RCMA Executive Director DeWayne Woodring.

Besides San Antonio, the bureau’s bid also topped offers from Memphis, Hartford and Hampton, Virginia. Hartford had bid on the conference three previous times and Hampton had done so four times.

But Wilson emphasized that the bureau wasn’t sitting on its laurels after beating out more familiar names for the prized meeting. In fact, he told the Business Journal that there still was plenty of work to be done.

“Oh, very much so. We will put together kind of a leadership committee to oversee this. We’re going to involve many of the ecumenical leaders that were involved in our August event,” he said. “But many preparations have to be made for this.”     

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