Grand Rapids Impresses Visitors

September 5, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — A pair of meeting planners from different cities in Kansas had rave reviews of this city after being part of a contingent that was recently wined and dined for a weekend by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Nineteen planners saw the city’s sights and spent a day along the Lakeshore the second weekend in August on the bureau’s tab, and 10 filed glowing reports on their visits.

CVB Vice President of Sales George Helmstead and his crew escorted the group around the new DeVos Place, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the Van Andel Public Museum, the Gerald R. Ford Museum, and Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park on a recent Friday.

Then on Saturday they pulled up anchor and headed west.

“We took them out to the Tall Ships in Muskegon. Then to Grand Haven to walk the boardwalk. And then down to Camp Blodgett for a dinner and luau on the northern end of Holland, right on the lake. It’s a beautiful spot,” said Helmstead.

None of the 19 has held a meeting here, and for a number of the planners the visit was their first time here.

“It was kind of neat to show the city off. They were just so surprised at what the city and the area had to offer,” said Helmstead.

Beth Bailey, convention manager for the American Business Women’s Association, was impressed. She told the Business Journal she was awed with everything she saw here on her two-day visit.

“I really liked the city. I was so impressed. I really can’t pick out one thing. I really like water, so I loved the beach and Lake Michigan,” said Bailey, whose association is based in Kansas City.

But Bailey added that she has to put her personal preferences aside and try to determine what her members would like, and she felt they would enjoy the museums the city has and the shopping the area offers.

“I really liked the city as a whole, and that is what I have to consider because, obviously, we have a variety of members and we have to have lots of things for them to do,” she said.

“That is what the city offers and the diversity of what is offered is what I am looking for,” she added.

Bailey came here to take a look at Grand Rapids as a possible meeting place for a regional conference, one that would draw from 300 to 400 ABWA Midwest members.

The group usually has six to eight regional meetings each year. The ABWA has 55,000 members and is holding its national convention in November in Las Vegas.

At the regional meetings, Bailey said local members often offer tours of their chosen city as fundraisers for the chapters. They also like to hire local acts to play at their banquets, and Bailey said they select cities that have a wide array of talent available.

“We were entertained with a guitarist one night, Hawaiian dancers and a steel drum band. Those are the kinds of things that must be available in this area. That’s good because that is the kind of thing that we’re looking for,” said Bailey, who has been with the ABWA for almost five years.

If diversity is the key criterion for Bailey, it’s convenience for Sally Hathaway.

Hathaway is a meeting planner with Allen Marketing and Management, of Lawrence, Kan. She said her trip here convinced her that the city is conveniently laid out around the convention center.

“I loved it. I absolutely loved the city. I thought it was beautiful and clean.

“It was quaint, but not in a small way,” she added. “It was just a really nice city. We had just an amazing time. It could not have been better,” said Hathaway, whose has been with Allen for half a year.

“Convenience is important, very important,” she explained, “convenience of the location of hotels and convention centers, and if there are some different places off-site where you can hold activities and events — kind of like The BOB, that is a really neat place, or the Frederik Meijer Gardens.”

At last count, the CVB had 83 conventions booked at DeVos Place starting in December and running through 2009, meetings that should deposit $35 million in new dollars in the region’s account.

Each convention should average 2,140 delegates. Sixty-three percent of the groups booked are from Michigan, while the rest are from other parts of the country.

The August tour was the bureau’s second this year.

A group of seven visited here during the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit last spring. A few of the visitors book several conventions for different groups each year, while others book several meetings each year for a single group. Helmstead said the visitors bureau plans to invite more meeting planners here twice next year, too.

The CVB also hosts smaller visits several times a year, usually for a company’s board of directors and members of a convention selection committee.

Both types of events are paid for through the CVB marketing budget and both are vital to the bureau’s efforts.

“Many times when board members vote on a destination, we don’t make the first round because they don’t know Grand Rapids well enough,” Helmstead said.

“So our strategy is to have them host a board meeting here and let them see Grand Rapids firsthand,” said Helmstead. “That has been a successful strategy.”

And it’s unlikely that Hathaway would disagree with Helmstead’s conclusion.

“The CVB was amazing. The hotel was amazing,” she said. “And everyone was so friendly. I mean, A-plus.”

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