Layering The Plan For Convention Business

September 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A recent focus group held by the Convention and Visitors Bureau to gain insights into how it can attract more African-American religious conferences to DeVos Place went very well and, in some respects, exceeded expectations.

That impression came from CVB President Steve Wilson who witnessed the responses of eight area African-American pastors, two of whom have strong national ties, to an interview session led by Skot Welch of Diversity Management Strategies and Joe Jones of the Strategic Communications Group.

“It went better than we expected because we actually had a couple of national representatives of church organizations,” said Wilson.

The session was important for the bureau and the future of the local hospitality industry because religious organizations and hobby groups are the two meeting categories the CVB has set as top priorities.

Wilson said religious conferences only account for 8 percent of the current convention business coming here. But he sees plenty of room for growth in that sector because it is a good fit for the city, and here is why:

• The city is home to a prominent group of religious leaders who are very well known across the country, and they have enough influence at the national level to help direct a conference here.

• The city is well known as a center for Christian commerce, meaning the religious business community can lend its support to bring religious conferences here.

• The city has multiple religious-based colleges and universities with gifted scholars on staff who can provide thoughtful programming for these meetings.

Another reason — one the city shares with other destinations — is that summer typically is the slowest season in the convention business. Religious groups, though, prefer to hold their state and national gatherings during the summer. So increasing faith-based bookings can result in a genuine revenue boost for the building and local economy at a time when income expectations are low.

Wilson said there are two reasons why religious organizations meet in the summer.

“Going to a conference with your church is different than going to a business meeting. If you’re going to a business meeting, your employer will give you time off. But many people who go to a religious conference do so on their own personal vacation time, and many build an actual family vacation around their religious conference. That’s the biggest reason,” he said.

“The second reason is religious conferences know that Grand Rapids isn’t the only city that is slow in its convention business during the summer — even major destinations like Orlando and others reach out then — and so they typically get discounted rates.”

Religious conferences have another appealing element: Many tend to be large.

Wilson said these meetings usually bring more delegates and dollars to the city than many other groups.

The United Church of Christ will hold its annual conference here in July 2009 and is expected to be worth $2.2 million to the economy. Also coming that year is the Religious Conference Management Association, and that group of meeting planners is expected to spend $1.3 million while in town.

“This is summer business and this is how we layer the business. As our center continues ramping up toward more of a plateau of business, and we are still in the first five-year phase of ramping up, it’s all about layering the business,” said Wilson.

“Business provided by our major corporations like Gordon Food Service, Wolverine World Wide, Steelcase, Amway and others are in the fall and in the spring. We’ve got public shows in the winter, and then the religious and hobby groups in the summer.”

But with the convention business often slow in many cities in the summer, almost every city offers lower prices for meeting space, and less expensive hotel rates and competition for faith-based groups can be keen. Still, Wilson remains confident his staff will be successful in getting its share because religion plays well here.

“We can compete effectively against much, much larger cities. So even though there is tough competition out there, I feel we can compete very effectively,” he said.

Recent history supports his statement, as more than 60 religious conferences have met here since 2000. At least 15 more are on the books through 2010, and about 20 others are being pitched.

“We’ve got a pretty good conversion rate. We feel we have the best conversion rate for African-Americans as it relates to religious conferences,” said Wilson of the rationale behind the recent focus group.

The bureau, of course, tapped the pastors’ collective knowledge in order to learn how to better serve the delegates of African-American religious organizations and to enlist their help in bringing their respective groups here. And the bureau has another similar session planned, but with a slightly different angle. Next time, the CVB will speak with groups that have met here previously and have a large African-American membership or cultural focus.

“We will ask them what was their experience here. The goal is to get at customer service levels and what we might do to enhance that,” said Wilson.

Wilson said the bureau will issue a final report on both focus-group interviews after the second one is completed.

“From the community perspective, we sometimes over-estimate facilities. When we’re out there in the marketplace, having a facility like DeVos Place gets us to the table. But that’s all it gets us. It’s these other aspects — community engagement, program support and business support — that really help us win the business.”    

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