Getting Ready To Run DeVos Place

November 1, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — While the construction crews are starting their last leg of work on DeVos Place — which will be next June — the SMG management team is beginning to make their plans for the daily operation of the new $220 million convention facility.

When January 2005 rolls around — the month a worker will drive the final screw into the building — SMG will have more square footage to oversee and, as everyone is counting on, more and larger events to manage.

The new DeVos Place, named in honor of Rich and Helen DeVos for their $15 million contribution to the building project, will occupy a million square feet on its 13-acre site along Monroe Avenue between Michigan and Lyon streets.

The building will have 160,000 square feet of column-free space for exhibitors, an area roughly the size of three football fields laid side-by-side.

It will also offer a 40,000 square foot ballroom that can seat 4,000 for dinner and 35,000 square feet of meeting space that can be divvied up among smaller groups.

Even though the building won't be completely finished for a few years, SMG has already begun to do its homework — on a national scale, mind you —- for the right management plan for what has been called the city's jewel of a convention center.

"We're in the midst of analyzing and assessing the situation right now," said Rich MacKeigan, SMG general manager of the Van Andel Arena and Grand Center.

"We're getting information from other SMG venues right now, as well as our corporate office, as far as how the organizational chart should look. It definitely will be expanding, but probably not expanding as much as people would think," he added.

MacKeigan told the Business Journal that he expects fewer people will be added to the staff because the management team at the Grand Center, the building DeVos Place will replace, has done a solid job. Plus staffers stationed at the arena have been able to pitch in at the Grand Center when they've needed to do so.

"We have a number of staff that have responsibilities at both venues. So we're hoping to continue that trend where we'll have directors with oversight for both venues," he said.

Employees in the box office and the accounting department work both buildings and will likely continue to do the same when the new building opens. But MacKeigan said more workers will be needed for the event, maintenance, marketing and engineering staffs.

"What we're talking about is a much bigger building that will, hopefully, be much busier," he said of the reason for a larger staff. "We might see some slight increase in the accounting department, as well. But primarily it will be the event-staff personnel that we will look to be expanding."

It's a little too soon for MacKeigan to know how many people he will add to his staff, but he should have a better idea of how many it will be once he gets done contacting managers at other SMG-run buildings in similar-sized markets and finishes talking with executives at the firm's corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.

MacKeigan will study the organizational charts and activity levels at other buildings and find out if there is anything managers at those venues would like to change.

Then he said he will sit down with his staff to get their input before he makes a commitment.

"We're going to ask each one of our directors to identify what areas they're already handling with regards to shared responsibilities, so that some of those roles may be absorbed with staff that we have right now either housed, partially or completely, over at the arena, and then fill in the blanks," said MacKeigan.

"Within the next couple of weeks we should have somewhat of an idea of how we'd like to see things structured."

SMG-managed buildings in Peoria, Columbus, Savannah and Fort Lauderdale are just a few that MacKeigan plans to take a close look at before he makes a staffing decision.

Having those connections at SMG, which operates 156 venues with over nine million square feet of exhibition space, certainly eases the stress level for board members of the Convention and Arena Authority, the entity that will own DeVos Place.

"SMG has gone through this a number of times in a number of different markets. They know what they're doing and, therefore, we locally know what we're doing.

"We've got staff here, like assistant GM Jim Watt, who has gone through this exact same scenario in other markets," said MacKeigan.

About the only portion of the building that SMG, which has managed the Grand Center since 1994 and the arena since its opening in 1996, won't manage will be the underground parking ramp.

Parking Services, a city agency, will do that. In addition, the designers at Progressive AE and Ellerbe Beckett managed the layout of the building.

But, ultimately, the success of the building will largely depend on how well the facility is run when it is open.

"Through acquisitions, SMG now manages more convention space than ever before," said MacKeigan. "So that is really going to be an asset moving forward, as we try to keep DeVos Place as busy as possible."

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