Ready To Rumble For Business

September 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Sports Commission is leading off with a grand slam — or maybe it’s tipping off with a slam dunk, in respect to the organization’s guest.

The group’s first annual meeting, a luncheon to be held in the new JW Marriott Hotel’s International Ballroom on Sept. 26, is sold out. Roughly 900 have bought tickets to the event that features MSU head basketball coach, Tom Izzo, as the commission’s opening speaker.

“He is somebody that is renowned in the sports world nationally and, of course, statewide. There is a lot of green blood that flows through this area, as well as maize and blue. But it’s going to be exciting to have him as guest speaker to kick off our inaugural event that will become an annual luncheon to report back to our community on how we’re doing,” said Mike Guswiler, executive director of the fledgling sports commission.

“It sold out very quickly at $500 a table and $75 a seat.”

Guswiler came to the commission in June after seven years with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. He served as the director of sports marketing there and secured some key events for the city during his CVB tenure, such as the Golden Gloves National Finals and the American Collegiate Hockey Championships.

Guswiler is still putting his staff together. He has hired Natalie Rose as his executive assistant and said he is close to selecting an events manager. But even as he is filling out his own roster, Guswiler said he is also looking for business.

“We will set up the organization and still try to reach out and secure some events,” he said.

“What I hope occurs in the short term is to get the organization on its feet and begin having an impact in the region through securing some events that have not been here before, and, at the same time, assist the events that currently exist here and help those grow.”

Guswiler said the process of attracting sporting events isn’t all that much different from the procedure the bureau uses to draw business conventions and woodworking tradeshows.

“The parallels fall in line with destination marketing; that is, showing your community as a wonderful place to come and do business and conduct your event, whether it’s a convention or a sporting event,” he said.

But there are differences, and a key one is having a sports commission. Guswiler said the board is a must because tournament directors see it as a dedicated resource that is extremely serious about making a commitment to the sports-tourism business. In turn, those directors need certain things to come to an area, and they look to a commission to have those features in place for them.

“They require a club that is active in the area, a lot of volunteers, and to some degree, some sponsorships and commitments from the area. And certainly some local media coverage,” he said.

As for the level of events the commission will pursue, Guswiler said the initial focus will be to draw amateur and youth tournaments to the region. At the same time, his staff and board members will try to fulfill three other goals: enhance the image of West Michigan as a premier sports tourism destination, expose the quality of life of the region, and have a positive impact on the region’s economy, most notably the hospitality industry.

Kent County paid for an inventory of the sports facilities within the region, and Guswiler said the report showed the area should be able to draw interest from most sports bodies.

“But at the same time, the report identified a potential for growth where some of these tournament directors and sports-governing bodies are looking and keying on different destinations to choose as their host site. So that plays into having more contiguous deals, whether its soccer, lacrosse, baseball or softball,” he said.

Guswiler said the commission has enough funding to make it through its first year. The first-year budget is $475,000, and the money comes to the commission through a partnership formed by the public and private sectors. Kent County, the CVB, the Convention and Arena Authority, and a fundraising drive led by retired businessman Peter Secchia accounted for those dollars.

“Both Don Schumacher, the executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, and the individual that did our facility analysis said we were well positioned right now,” he said.

The sports commission has 44 members; 11 of those serve on the executive committee. The executive committee has already held its first meeting and is scheduled to meet each month. The entire commission will meet on an as-needed basis, which is expected to be bi-monthly.

Commission terms range from one to three years. All members are volunteers.    

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