Experience GR heading in a new direction

September 18, 2011
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Each year Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, looks for answers to vital questions about its performance. Normally, the bureau asks its key stakeholders, such as hotel and motel operators, to commit to an evaluation of its work — and it will do that again, but this year, Experience GR is taking the process a step further by entering the arena of analysis.

The bureau will meet in a few weeks with a customer advisory board made up of 25 members of the hospitality industry. Their mission, which will last for two years, will be to assess the Experience GR marketing campaign and sales approach and then provide direction on how the bureau should go forward.

Experience GR President Doug Small told the Business Journal that he brought the advisory board idea here with him from Denver, where it proved to be a successful innovation. “They are a real diverse cross section of the convention market that we are trying to attract. Most of them have not brought a meeting here, while some have,” said Small.

“Every year we build a marketing plan, which is based on our five-year strategic plan. But when we start developing our marketing plan, we tend to go to our primary stakeholders, those we serve, to gather input to develop that plan of action. I felt that’s good. But why not go out to the end-user and find out what it is they want and what it is they see in other destinations that is working — sort of a best practice kind of thing,” he added.

Small offered Steve Beamer as an example of the board’s members. He said Beamer, who is based in the Washington, D.C., area, has booked meetings all over the globe. The reason to have him here is to learn which marketing concepts, sales approaches and ad campaigns have caught his attention, and what type of sales collateral works for him.

“Right down to what do they read on a regular basis,” said Small of what he and his staff want to learn from advisory board members. “The primary purpose is to ask them to help us define and prepare a strategic marketing plan.”

The three-day meeting will take place here Sept. 28-30, while ArtPrize is under way. Small said the event was purposely set during the arts competition as the bureau’s second goal is to get the members to become fans of the city and hold meetings here in the future. He said that approach worked well in Denver.

“The arts-culture scene (here), as you can see by our billboards, has really become a real brand pillar of ours. Whether there will be an ArtPrize for years to follow hasn’t been decided yet, but we wanted most of their first view of the city to see that it is a strong arts-culture community.

David Radcliffe, of Spokane, Wash., will moderate the sessions, which Small said he has done at similar gatherings across the nation. Radcliffe’s extensive hospitality background includes serving as president and CEO of the Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also started The Radcliffe Co., which Radcliffe said can help a client gain a “sustainable competitive advantage” in the tourism industry.

“We have huge expectations that this is going to make us a stronger destination,” said Small.

Expectations are also high because business is up. Room occupancy was 58.5 percent this year through July, up from 52.7 percent for the same period last year, and from 50.1 percent two years ago. The national occupancy rate is 60.7 percent, so the local lodging market is making gains on the rest of the country. Room revenue in the county has totaled $67.1 million so far this year, which is also up by 15.3 percent from a year ago; 2010 was the best revenue year the local industry had.

Small said the gains were due to a slight increase in corporate travel and by strong repeat visits from those who have attended ArtPrize. “We worked very hard last year with cross-promoting our cultural establishments, and I think we’re seeing people who are coming for one exhibit and are coming back because they didn’t get a chance to see as much as they wanted,” he said. “And our group business is staying pretty steady as attendance at our conventions has been solid.”

Experience GR is not paying members of the advisory board for their time and expertise, but is taking care of their expenses to participate on the bureau’s behalf. “They’re doing this to help better the industry. I also feel that if we paid them, we may not get as much honesty back — and I can tell you that not everything we will hear will be pretty. I know in Denver we learned a lot about our shortcomings, which allowed us to become stronger, and we’re going to hear the same here,” said Small.

“I don’t expect it as much at this meeting because this meeting is going to be more of an orientation. But I think at future meetings, they’ll start digging down into this community and say, ‘You’re not going to get more national business like mine until you do X or Y or what have you.’ They’ll get that strong with us.”

In coming years, Small said the bureau hopes to bring the advisory board here twice a year, with one get-together planned for the spring and a second in the fall.

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