Convention Trade Split

January 24, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — It has been widely known that the city has been a prime place for state organizations to hold their annual meetings, even when the Grand Center offered obstructed exhibit areas and undersized meeting rooms.

Being a “state place” was the city’s standing in the convention trade long before DeVos Place opened its doors a few years ago. But now that reputation is beginning to change.

Convention and Visitors Bureau President Steve Wilson is expected to tell members of the Convention and Arena Authority this week that 2007 was a watershed year; the city drew as many convention delegates from national and regional groups to DeVos Place as it did from organizations within Michigan.

“We’re now drawing half of our people from outside the state,” said Wilson.

Wilson credited that startling new achievement to the CVB and SMG sales teams and to the service that customers receive from the staff at the center and downtown hotels when they meet here. And he has testimonial letters from clients to support his claims.

“What worked for us at the state market is now working for us at the national market,” said Wilson. “Our calendar in 2009 is very full.”

The 2009 calendar has more meetings scheduled than this year’s, partly because the convention center was still under construction during the 2008 booking cycle. Typically, meetings are booked three or four years ahead of time.

SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said potential customers want to tour a building before they sign on the dotted line, and the local sales team didn’t have a finished DeVos Place for them to view in time for this year’s meeting schedule.

“They want to see the building before committing, and the building wasn’t ready,” said MacKeigan, also executive director of the CAA.

CVB Vice President of Sales George Helmstead said there isn’t much wiggle room left in 2009 to add more conventions to the calendar, as the building is near its booking capacity. He said the bureau is matching its open dates with groups that regularly meet during those periods instead of trying to convince associations to move their meetings to the times the building is available.

“There isn’t a lot of capacity open in ’09. We’re bringing about 125,000 new room nights a year, but it gets harder when you reach capacity,” said Helmstead.

Adding more new room nights to a nearly filled capacity next year might become a tad more difficult because the sales roster recently lost a key member. Steve Miller, who led the sales effort for SMG and worked closely with the CVB to bring conventions to the city, agreed to run a building in Toledo for SMG.

“What a great representative he was of SMG and the community. In his quiet way he was very helpful,” said Wilson.

MacKeigan said the work Miller did here would have a lasting presence in the local industry.

“I think we will be in a better position in six to 12 months than we are today. Not because we lost Steve, but because we had him,” he said.

MacKeigan also said DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena were on track to meet the event goals set for both buildings last summer.

“The convention center is doing well, and the things that were needed to fall in place for the arena are falling into place,” he said.

One of those things was last month’s Hannah Montana concert, an event that sold more than $200,000 worth of T-shirts and other merchandise alone. MacKeigan said the arena’s percentage of merchandise sales is small, but he added that the arena netted $17,000 from those sales.

Live Nation, possibly the world’s biggest concert promoter, is ending its relationship with TicketMaster next year. Live Nation, which also owns a number of concert venues, plans to begin selling tickets to the concerts it books in 2009. MacKeigan said the concert promoter is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the shows that are held at the arena, and TicketMaster is the official ticket seller for the building.

But MacKeigan didn’t see any problems arising from Live Nation not doing business with TicketMaster. He said tickets for the shows the promoter books at the arena will still have to be sold through TicketMaster because the firm has an exclusive contract with the building.

Wilson is also expected to make a presentation to the CAA on Wednesday about the bureau’s efforts to draw more medical and scientific groups to DeVos Place, a convention layer the CVB has added to its sales agenda.

“We’re a new convention center, and thousands of groups aren’t looking for us,” said Wilson. “Over time, those layers will continue to grow.”

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