Local bureau lands large convention for several years

February 25, 2011
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This convention is expected to be worth $15 million every time it is held in DeVos Place, and the group will meet here for three consecutive Augusts beginning in 2012. The $45 million the American Quilter’s Society will leave here makes it one of the largest series of meetings to be held in Grand Rapids.

Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, pointed out that more than 10,000 quilting enthusiasts from 40 states and 10 countries are projected to attend each meeting, resulting in 3,439 hotel room nights each year or 10,317 for the three-year run. That will account for 14 percent of the bureau’s goal to book 25,000 room nights annually — and in just four days.

But besides the economic boost the meetings will give the city, Experience GR President Doug Small said there are two other reasons the AQS booking is important to the bureau’s game plan to increase convention traffic. One, the convention helps the bureau attain one of its goals, which is to book more national meetings for the city. Two, the AQS meeting is a serial booking and Experience GR has wanted to raise its number of multiple-year signings.

“We look at a calendar year and say our goal should be to cross off weeks that we book business. If we can book business into the future for several years in a row and if we can be successful with doing that several times a year, then the supply available to conventions drops and the demand on the destination rises, and the potential of increasing revenues through higher rates is possible,” said Small.

“So if we can book more conventions into the future, that allows the hotels flexibility with their rate structuring to maybe get a little more aggressive. And not just toward group business, but toward any business that comes into the community,” he added. “So there is a revenue goal in there.”

Small also pointed out that having a group like AQS signed for three years allows the delegates to get to know the city better, which gives the bureau an opportunity to strengthen its relationship with the group and book even more meetings with the organization.

There is another benefit within that strategy, but this one is for the suburban hotels.

“Our goal is to book room nights throughout Kent County, and if we can book a number of large — what we refer to in our industry as citywide — conventions or convention-center users on an annual basis, that causes (booking) compressions (in downtown hotels) so that the everyday hotel stayer needs to move out to the suburbs to find a room. And that spreads the wealth,” said Small.

“So when we book these multiple years, we’re forcing that period to be more of a high-demand period that’s going to help all the hotels in the area and not just those downtown. If you’re filling up downtown, you’ve still got regular clients that do business downtown and they generally stay there for convenience. They’re not going to stop doing business in Grand Rapids. They’re just going to have to choose another place to stay. So if we can book large conventions, that helps all,” he explained.

Experience GR was successful last year in helping hotels set a new revenue record of $103.2 million, which easily topped the 2007 mark of $100.7 million. The Business Journal asked Small if he thought his agency was on a roll, but he stopped short of saying that.

“I’d say that our message is certainly being heard. We’re getting more looks, if that’s proper to say, and that’s all we ever ask. We think our brand message and our marketing is working. As an example, the largest third-party meeting company, ConferenceDirect, is coming in,” said Small of the Los Angeles-based firm.

“What they do is they work for associations and corporations on selecting sites for conventions, and the CEO and founder (Brian Stevens) has finally agreed to come and look at us. If he likes what he sees, then he will spread that word among the thousands he has working for him that do this on a regular basis. There are a lot of bureaus around the country that have not had this gentleman visit. That tells me that our messaging is really on-task right now, and now what we need to do is to turn those looks into contracts.”

Small credited Mary Manier, who directs sales for the bureau, for landing the AQS meetings. He said Manier has been working with the quilters society for a long time and had the group’s Executive Show Director Bonnie Browning in town a number of times. But Small said Browning hadn’t been here for a few years and hadn’t seen the “new downtown” that includes the JW Marriot Hotel.

“Mary kept working and saying, ‘You need to give us your time to come in and look.’ We were able to bring her in for a site inspection last fall and we knocked her socks off with our package,” said Small, who added that city officials and other residents also played a significant role in bringing AQS here.

“We brought others in to tell (AQS) their story of Grand Rapids. So this was truly a community working together to book this group.”

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