CVB hopes ArtPrize makes 'needle move'

September 10, 2009
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ArtPrize promises to make at least one artist a big-time winner, and the local hospitality industry hopes to capture a few treasures of its own from the two-week competition that begins in two weeks.

ArtPrize, the brainchild of Rick DeVos and his cohorts, will award $250,000 to the artist whose piece is the most popular with the public. It will generate a lot of worldwide publicity for the arts world, the artists who compete in it and the city. Those are pretty much givens.

But it’s not a given, at least not yet, that local hotels will be wall-to-wall with artists, art lovers and curiosity seekers during the competition’s run, which begins Sept. 23.

“It’s very difficult for us now, and maybe even after, to quantify a particular room night or room revenue standpoint. The reason is a lot of hotels haven’t put any kind of a tracking mechanism in their system. Some of the hotels have, though,” said Doug Small, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Small said he has asked lodging operators to ask guests why they are booking rooms to determine how many are coming here because of ArtPrize. “We’d like to see how the needle moves over the next couple of weeks,” he said of an occupancy rate that has been in the low 50 percentile for part of the year.

Small also said he thinks much of the ArtPrize traffic could be of the last minute variety, meaning bookings will pick up once the date gets closer and, maybe even more so once the art pieces are actually on display. “That’s our hope anyhow, but it is difficult right now to quantify,” he said.

The buzz the competition has created for the city has pleased Small. Both the mainstream media and the social media coverage have been international in scope, so art lovers in every corner of the planet have now heard of Grand Rapids. With that electronic and virtual spreading of the word, the city now has a chance to move a notch closer to becoming a destination for more travelers.

“In order for us to move to the next level in booking future business for the community, we have to increase our destination appeal,” said Small.

Small said destination appeal can come from a variety of sources. He felt, though, that most cities with really good reputations generally have three things they can brag about: an energetic arts community, a great restaurant scene and some quality attractions.

“I think through ArtPrize the world is going to see a unique, upbeat, trendy community that is going to be the talk of the town,” he said.

Small said the potential ArtPrize holds for the hospitality business on the tourism side is at the level of what the Religious Conference Management Association meeting may do for the convention business. CVB Executive Vice President George Helmstead said the bureau has had 56 sales leads for meetings from the four-day conference held here in January.

“ArtPrize is going to give us that same opportunity because there are going to be pictures of things going on in Grand Rapids floating around for weeks. There is going to be buzz with people talking about the wonderful experiences they had here. I can’t buy that kind of promotion,” said Small.

“Nowadays people are looking for authentic sources, and there is no better authentic source than having something come out of somebody’s mouth that is unsolicited.”

The CVB isn’t sitting around waiting for the reservation numbers to come rolling in; the bureau has extended its summer hotel promotion through the end of October. “Feel the Beat,” which gives guests a free iPod Shuffle for booking a two-night stay at one of 21 participating hotels, was set to end on Labor Day.

“Maybe we can entice some more people to stay. We’ve got some pretty good rates,” said Small.

In addition, the Pure Michigan radio advertising campaign for downtown Grand Rapids this fall focuses on the city’s arts and cultural offerings. The campaign has been timed to run with ArtPrize.

There aren’t any major conventions scheduled in the city during its run so rooms will be available for those two weeks.

“We’re using print media, radio and social media. So we’re using really a very integrated marketing approach on our part to try to help promote this, not just for the artists and the venues, but for people to come in and enjoy it. And, by the way, stay for a day or two,” said Small.

Whatever happens from ArtPrize this year, it isn’t likely to be as big for the hotels as it will be next year. When DeVos announced the competition, he indicated that he wasn’t sure what type of response the event would draw. He called it an “experiment.” But DeVos recently said the response has been more than he had imagined just months ago. If that feedback grows over the coming year from this year’s event, then next year’s ArtPrize could make the hospitality industry the big-time winner.

“Usually we have a pretty good strategy and tactics in place as we approach these kinds of projects. But because it was experimental, we didn’t really know which way to go, either. So we’re sort of feeling our way through this,” said Small.

“I think that if it is successful — and we’re anticipating that it is going to be — next year we will do a more robust marketing campaign much earlier and really build this thing up.”

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