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Quite an experience

Could ‘disruptive’ ideas make Grand Rapids the next Austin?

July 24, 2015
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A mixture of urban activities and outdoor adventures that are attractive to various types of visitors makes Grand Rapids a popular destination. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

With one great disruptive idea, could Grand Rapids be the next Austin?

Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids, thinks so.

Small returned a couple of weeks ago from a conference held in Austin and attended by the nation’s destination marketing agency leaders, and the experience left him inspired and excited.

He said he is excited by all of the great things Grand Rapids already has going for it and inspired by what he expects is on the horizon for the city.

“We have incredible infrastructure as it relates to gaining visitor travel,” Small said. “What I mean by that is, our convention center, hotels, arena and our walkable entertainment district are as good as cities one-and-a-half times our size.”

He also noted hotel room revenues increased for the fifth consecutive year in Grand Rapids with contributions from all three travel sectors: leisure, business and groups.

“By and large, everybody is doing very well, and that includes us,” he said. “I didn’t talk to many who are having the growth we’ve seen, though. … Our numbers are jumping off the board compared to three or four years ago.”

Small said he expects this year will be another record-breaker.

“We projected to increase hotel room revenue by another 5 percent in 2015, and we are tracking well ahead of that through May,” he said. “We are currently 10.5 percent above last year’s revenue through May. We expect June to make that number grow because June was a fantastic month from everything we can see.”

In 2008, Grand Rapids hotels and motels had an occupancy rate of 48 percent. Today, the city’s occupancy rate has grown to nearly 65 percent, which is the national average. Small said he thinks Grand Rapids could eventually exceed the national average and reach a 70 percent occupancy rate.

He isn’t worried that new hotels soon to join the downtown and surrounding Grand Rapids market will negatively impact the city’s occupancy rates, either. In fact, he is looking forward to the opportunity.

There are currently 1,436 hotel rooms in downtown Grand Rapids. The four planned hotel projects coming to the area will bring another 582 rooms to the market.

The four hotel projects are: the Hampton Inn & Suites, under construction in Mid Towne Village near Michigan Street and College Avenue; Homewood Suites by Hilton, scheduled to begin construction later this year in the Waters Building downtown; a five-story yet-to-be-branded hotel project by CWD Real Estate Investment at the corner of Monroe Avenue and Louis Street; and a Drury Inn and Suites under construction on 28th Street near the I-96 interchange.

“Can we absorb that new supply? I feel pretty confident we can,” he said.

He said just a few years ago he wouldn’t have had that same confidence.

“A couple of years ago, I was asked, ‘Do we need more hotel rooms?’ and I said let’s work on what we have now — and I meant that. We were still building the brand.”

While Grand Rapids is getting more recognition from travelers as a city worth boarding an airplane to visit, Small said it can still be a challenge to get people here, and building the Grand Rapids brand is still Experience Grand Rapids’ most significant challenge.

Small said several investments are starting to show results in driving tourism to the city, however.

The first is the Pure Michigan campaign, which is an effort by Michigan Economic Development Corp. to drive visitors to Michigan through a regional and national advertising campaign.

“It’s been wildly successful for us,” Small said.

Grand Rapids is the largest paid Pure Michigan partner in the state, and Experience Grand Rapids continues to increase its investment each year.

In 2014, Experience Grand Rapids invested $850,000 in the Pure Michigan campaign. The state matched that contribution dollar for dollar, resulting in a total investment of $1.7 million.

The result of the 2014 campaign was $206 million in incremental spending and 756,600 incremental visits, according to Small.

“We will continue to invest substantially in that program,” he said.

Experience Grand Rapids also has landed on what Small calls the city’s “three brand pillars”: its arts and culture offerings, its restaurant and beer scene, and its extensive natural resources.

Small said Grand Rapids has a tremendous amount of assets when it comes to arts and culture.

“I’ve always told people that, outside of Chicago, I’ll challenge any Midwest city to have a better arts and culture scene,” he said.

He noted the city’s recurring honor as Beer City USA has helped make Grand Rapids a tourism-worthy city for craft beer lovers.

And finally, he said the city offers a great mix of urban activities and outdoor adventures that are attractive to various types of visitors.

“We’ve selected these brand pillars to say, ‘When you come here, whatever I’ve told you — for instance, about arts and culture — it’s going to be good. We can deliver,’” Small said.

While Small said the city definitely can deliver on its “brand promise,” he would like to see the restaurant scene continue to improve, and he thinks completion of the Grand River rapids restoration project is essential to making the city a go-to travel destination.

“We’ve got to get this project done; it’s a game-changer,” he said. “That is really on my radar: How do we as an organization become more involved and advocate for that project?”

Small said Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.’s goal of providing and supporting more winter programming also will help. He said there are plenty of people who aren’t afraid of the cold and who will gladly visit a winter paradise if the right activities are available.

Finally, he said inclusiveness is a must for the city.

“We are very adamant about becoming a more inclusive community,” he said.

He said attracting the LGBT community to downtown is one of the organization’s emerging goals.

“We are starting to dive in and get more aggressive with the LGBT community,” he said. “We want the conferences pertaining to that market. We work closely with locals on that and we will continue to do that.”

Other groups Experience Grand Rapids would like to attract — and which Small thinks the city is well positioned to host — include education conferences, design and engineering conferences and health and sciences conferences.

Young people are also a viable travel sector to which the organization is paying particular attention, and Small said he thinks the city has great diversity in hotel options available to support travelers with different economic means.

“I think we are well positioned to continue to attract a diverse demographic of traveler, and we have been,” he said. “We’ve got a Holiday Inn product on the west side of the river, we have a high end in the JW and Amway, and then you’ve got the Courtyard and CityFlats.”

Small said while the Amway and JW Marriott are four-diamond hotels, their pricing is comparable to that of their two-diamond counterparts.

“We are still very affordable, and that is what makes us attractive to these convention groups,” he said.

So what is next for Experience Grand Rapids?

Small said the theme of the Austin conference was “be disruptive,” and that is the challenge he is going to present to his team this month.

“We’ve got to stir it up,” he said. “It’s time to be disruptive.”

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