Dropping Pucks For Tourism Bucks

August 15, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Call it a coalition of the more-than-willing, and a successful one at that, as the result of a united effort done by Western Michigan University, the Van Andel Arena, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau will add more than $15 million to the local economy over the next four years.

The threesome was able to secure three of the next four NCAA Division I Hockey Regionals for the arena and each one should be worth more than $5 million in tourism business for the city.

"We are very excited that the NCAA has given us the opportunity to host future regionals," said Kathy Beauregard, WMU athletic director.

"We have a great relationship with Van Andel Arena and look forward to making the NCAA Regionals a regular occurrence in Grand Rapids."

Western will serve as the host school for the events, the first of which will take place on March 27-28 next year. The others will occur on March 25-26, 2005, and March 23-24, 2007. Next year's regional will be the third for the arena, as the 1997 and 2001 games were hosted there by WMU.

"As an institution, it is exciting to host a regional for the third time," said WMU hockey coach Jim Culhane of the event next March.

Monte Porter, an assistant in the athletic business office at WMU and point person for the 2004 event, told the Business Journal that the success of the very first regional the school hosted six years ago was crucial in getting the others.

"The hardest one to get is the first one you ever host. That is where you really have to put a lot of the legwork in, to getting the first one," he said of the 1997 event. "Doing a first one and running a successful event is what has led to the group being awarded additional bids."

Porter pointed out that arena management firm SMG and the CVB did much of that legwork for the university's successful bids. Letters of support had to be secured. Hotel room rates had to be set and rooms had to be set aside. Attendance projections and pro formas also had to be made. Rent for the arena had to be set and tickets had to be priced.

Everything had to be done in advance and had to be approved by the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Committee, a governing group that includes MSU Athletic Director Ron Mason.

The first thing that CVB Vice President of Sales George Helmstead did for the bureau's portion of the proposal was to contact downtown hotels to determine if enough rooms were available for the weekend of the event.

Executives at the Amway Grand Plaza, the Courtyard By Marriot, the Days Inn, and the Radisson North said they had vacancies then. A minimum of 350 rooms will be needed on those March weekends, and the hotels discounted their room rates by up to 30 percent so the NCAA would make the bulk buys.

"I put together a package that sells the entire city, the destination, and the accessibility of the destination, along with the hotel package. I sent those books, which were probably three or four binders, over to (SMG Marketing Director) Lynne (Ike) to add in the proposal from the arena, availability of dates and costs," said Helmstead.

"Then those were sent to Western Michigan University, the athletic department. Then Kathy Beauregard put in her proposal and invitation to the NCAA," he added.

The NCAA reserves hotel rooms for the teams, school and league officials, and media, but not for any fans. The reason for that is, the teams that will play here won't be known until a week or so before the event. But Helmstead felt that up to another 1,000 hotel rooms might be needed for fans once the teams are known. The bureau will get a better handle on that number after the schools put their allotment of tickets on sale.

"We came up with $5.2 million based on 10,000 people attending the event," Helmstead said of the projected economic impact for the 2004 event.

"If it were just a meeting with 350 people, it would be substantially lower based on the room pickup. But the room pickup may be much higher. We just don't know yet."

They made three proposals to get the three regionals. The first for the 2004 event was the most difficult to put together and was three inches thick. It contained contacts and letters of interest from the chamber, the city, the Downtown Development Authority, other civic groups and local media.

Another section detailed the budget, financial terms for the event and projected ticket sales. Another provided complete information about the arena, including who has played there in the last year, shows that have sold out, and its proximity to local attractions.

Information on the hotels was next, followed by a section on the city. WMU added its pages to the proposal, which was rounded out with a marketing plan and an ad schedule for the event.

"It's pretty comprehensive as far as getting information to them," said Ike. "But the big thing is that (SMG General Manager) Rich MacKeigan talks to Tom Jacobs of the NCAA and he stays in touch with him throughout the year. He is very good at staying in contact with all these different people."

The subsequent proposals for 2005 and 2007 were updates of the 2004 one and changes for both focused on the availability of hotel rooms and arena dates.

It took two weeks to put the proposal for 2004 together and it took a few months for the NCAA to get back to them. The ice hockey committee approved the 2004 event in July 2002 and the 2005 and 2007 events last month. Besides the direct economic boost the events will bring — $15 million — the regionals also have an indirect impact on future business for the arena.

"You wouldn't believe how many promoters have told us that they see us in the trade magazines all the time and in the news. They notice that. If they know they're playing in an arena down the road and they see the news about the NCAA tournament, that sticks with them and it makes them realize that we're not just doing five or six shows a year," said Ike.

In order to win an NCAA bid, a university or a conference must host an event. Western, which has had a men's hockey team for decades and held two hockey tournaments at the arena in December of 1996 and 1997, was ready to take on that task in 1997. That first event set a NCAA attendance record, and the one WMU hosted in 2001 topped it.

Since playing host to those events, WMU has raised its presence here by adding a second graduate center on Ionia Avenue, one that is within walking distance of the arena. So for the university, the upcoming regionals aren't just about hockey. The events are also about being a contributing part of a community.

"We want to build in-roads in Grand Rapids," said Porter from his office in Kalamazoo. "That is important to the university, in general." 

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