More hotel rooms being booked this year

December 16, 2011
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Hotel occupancy across the county has grown this year from previous years, as has room revenue.

The occupancy rate through October of this year, which is the most recent figure released by Smith Travel Research, was 59.7 percent — up greatly from the 2008 number of 50.1 percent.

“In three years, to gain that many points is really good,” said Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

“Sixty percent is the magic number everybody shoots for, and if you looked at different parts of the city, you’ll see discrepancies. I’m probably sure in downtown they’re running in the mid-60s. I hate to sound ecstatic about a number that isn’t 60 percent, but considering where we came from … A year ago, we were at 55.3 (percent) and we’ve gone to 59.7 in a year’s time,” he added.

Total room revenue through October this year was $99 million, which compares to $88 million for 2010. “I think we’re going to end-up very, very strong,” said Small. Gymnastics on the Grand, an event that was promoted by the West Michigan Sports Commission and held earlier this month at DeVos Place, was expected to pump up December’s hotel reservations.

“They’ve found their legs; it’s taken five years,” said Small of the sports commission. “We’re getting a handsome return from a room-night standpoint from them. I think it would be even better if we could measure those better. But a lot of sports groups don’t sign contracts. What they do is say, ‘Give us a list of your hotels,’ and they’ll stay anywhere. It’s very difficult to track when it goes that way.”

Small is working on a measurement, of sorts, for his own organization. He put together a new customer advisory board a few months ago to provide input into the bureau’s marketing plan and to accompany the insights the agency receives from its key local stakeholders. The board consists of 25 members, who are located throughout the country and plan events for a wide variety of organizations that Experience Grand Rapids would like to book here.

The board gathered at DeVos Place for the first time over three days in late September. Small said the meeting went very well, even though it was largely an orientation session to get the members familiar with the city and what it has to offer visitors. Eighteen of the 25 members showed up, and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell addressed the gathering on its opening day.

“He also spent time on what he considered to be the primary assets of the city. Then I gave them a complete overview on the creation of Experience Grand Rapids, how we’re funded and the overall goals and objectives,” said Small. “We wanted them to go into the reception on the first night with sort of an overload of what Grand Rapids is all about and how the convention bureau operates.”

Small said the comments he received from board members were very similar to the remarks he hears from meeting planners when they visit the city. He said they, too, were amazed with the cleanliness and the look and feel of downtown, and with how close the attractions are to the convention center and the downtown hotels.

“I thought it was interesting that, after the first session, some of them told me that it was very obvious that we have a wonderful relationship between our mayor, government officials and our private partners. In many cases, the mayor doesn’t even come to speak to them,” said Small of other cities.

The bureau specifically held the first meeting during ArtPrize, but Small said he felt the turnout would have been the same if it hadn’t been scheduled during the annual arts competition. He also said the meeting’s agenda didn’t give board members a lot of free time to wander on their own through the city. But he said having them here then added a lot of buzz to their personal impressions of the city.

“Keep in mind that these are people who create big meetings, and for them to see something like that can be pulled off and done, I think was amazing to them,” he said.

As for sales leads, Small said the bureau didn’t get any from the meeting but added they will come down the road. “We made it very clear to our staff (that) the focus, especially for the first one, was the meeting itself and what we could gain, knowledge-wise, from our customers. The secondary (focus) was we could get some business from it. Now as time goes on, that relationship will become a little bit stronger and we will become a little more aggressive towards that goal,” he said.

The customer advisory board is expected to return in late April, again for three days. “At the next meeting, we’re going to dig into more detail. In the first meeting, we talked about marketing overall. We sent them all of our materials ahead of time, like our visitors’ guide and other things. They helped critique those materials and our website. The next time, we will dig in and do a session solely on the website,” said Small.

“But we found out they talked about it being a walkable city. There weren’t any real negatives. They thought that the skywalk, albeit it’s nice that we have it for the winter, isn’t something that we should overly push because it’s such a walkable, beautiful city to be out in. They also felt the signage in the skywalk could use a lot of improvement.“

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