Priceline.com selects West Michigan for call center

January 11, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Priceline.com, the Internet travel company that uses "Star Trek" actor William Shatner in its advertising, announced in August that it had leased almost 46,000 square feet of space in the former Siemens Dematic facility on Eastern Avenue in Wyoming for a call center for its Booking.com division.

The company also immediately set out to hire 50 to 100 employees from the local area. It may have more than 400 employees there within five years, with the average wage expected to be about $14 an hour plus benefits.

The former Siemens Dematic facility at 4147 and 4247 Eastern Ave., now owned by Franklin Partners of Chicago, had been vacant since July 2006.

The Michigan Economic Growth Authority, in collaboration with the city of Wyoming and The Right Place Inc., had previously announced that about $5 million in state and local tax credits and abatements were offered to Priceline.com as an incentive to select the Wyoming location.

An executive of Priceline.com, which is headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., said, "Assuming that the business continues to perform as well as it's been performing, we could have hundreds of people in that center over the next year or two." Priceline.com booked $4.8 billion in worldwide travel arrangements in 2007.

Bob Mylod, chief financial officer of Priceline.com, said the available employee base in the Grand Rapids area should "fit particularly well with what we are trying to do" with the new call center for hotel bookings, which will serve many offshore customers.

Sue Jackson, senior business development manager at The Right Place, said the greater Grand Rapids area has suddenly come on the radar for companies that are searching for new call center locations. The first reason she cited for that phenomenon is the area’s demographics. There are diverse foreign languages spoken here, starting with Spanish but also including Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and some Arabic.

"The other thing we have is more than 70,000 college students in our greater Grand Rapids area," said Jackson. College students are ideal candidates for call center employment because they have some higher education, better communication skills and often are available for night and weekend shifts.

Jackson said there have been about a half-dozen inquiries this year from companies looking for call center sites.

Call center employees work on computers and telephones, answering calls and e-mails to assist customers or company agents. A wide variety of businesses maintain large call centers, such as banks, insurance companies, retailers and travel agencies, to name a few. Amway has a call center, as do area office furniture manufacturers. Call centers are measured by "seats," with the major call centers ranging from 200 to 500 seats, said Jackson.

"I think there are some major corporations who have decided to bring their call centers back from offshore, because customers are asking for that," said Jackson.

Laura Grimes of Harrington Consulting Group in Rochester introduced Priceline.com, its client, to West Michigan. Most of the call center sites she has scouted have been in the Sunbelt states. Companies were reluctant to try to set up call centers in Michigan in the past, when high-paying manufacturing jobs were easier to find. Now Michigan is looking better to the call center industry, with the combination of a high unemployment rate and higher-than-average education levels in some areas of the state.

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