Now Its Millers Time

October 3, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — He has never had a hit single, but that doesn't mean he can't sing.

In fact, this Steve Miller has successfully sung the virtues of conventioning in the city to meeting planners from all over the country, as his mission is to drum up tradeshow business for DeVos Place.

"I work with the CVB and the hotel operators. We call ourselves Team Grand Rapids. I represent the building, the hotel operators represent the hotels, and the CVB represents the city as a whole," he said.

"When we're selling to these groups we really try to have two or three of us at these meetings to give these potential clients complete knowledge of the building and the city, so they can make a good decision."

Miller also has been known to make solo calls on clients, and for those he has to pitch the city's nightlife, artistic attractions, shopping areas and the lakeshore, in addition to what the new building has to offer. That means he can't just specialize in the brick and mortar, but be well versed and convincing in every aspect of the local industry. He also has to be able to paint an alluring image of a city that not everyone has heard of.

"One of the challenges that we have is that people don't understand Grand Rapids. When they think of Michigan, on a national level, they think of Detroit. They don't think of Grand Rapids. But we're changing that now," he said.

"Once we get people to Grand Rapids to see Grand Rapids, people are amazed."

Miller has been director of sales for SMG Inc., the Philadelphia-based firm that manages the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, since last April. But he is not a new guy in town; he was promoted to that post after seven years of directing activities at both buildings.

Miller started here in 1996 as the initial event coordinator for the brand new arena. About 18 months later, he was named sales manager for the Grand Center until SMG made him director of event services two years later.

"With that job I still did the sales side of things, but I also took on the responsibility of the actual event loads, as far as supervising the event coordinators, the operations people, the changeovers and those types of things," he said.

"That's what I did prior to director of sales. (SMG general manager) Rich (MacKeigan) split the job and I went into the sales direction."

And now it is Miller's time, especially with the DeVos Place exhibit space opening in less than 60 days. After three years of tearing down and building up, the reality of the center's debut is starting to sink in with Miller, and he said the excitement is getting contagious. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for Dec. 3, just 24 hours before the woodworkers gather to christen the building.

"We just had a pre-convention meeting with the woodworkers for three days. They just went back home and they're so excited to have this new building," he said. "Some of their top exhibitors are just amazed that Grand Rapids has finally pulled the trigger on this brand new, nice building. It will really put us on the map."

Miller got his initial taste of building management as a first-year graduate student at Ohio University. Just two months into his first semester on the Athens campus, he managed to get an internship at the Charlotte, N.C., Coliseum — then the home nest for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets.

"I really learned a lot about the sporting business and that kind of evolved into this convention center work," he said.

Before he earned his master's degree from Ohio, Miller did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Tory, have two young daughters, Emma and Audrey. When he isn't selling the city, which isn't very often, Miller puts on the stripes to call offsides, traveling, and balls and strikes.

"I'm an active official. I referee football and basketball, and I also do baseball. I do high school football and basketball, and college baseball. I don't get to do it very much any more because I'm so busy. But I try to get out two or three times a month, if I can, and do some games," said Miller.

"Then there is family time. I try to spend as much time with my wife and family as I can. We travel a lot in Michigan. My parents have a cottage up north and my wife's parents have a cottage down in the Irish Hills."

Miller, of course, has the same name as the Wisconsin rocker who topped the charts in the 1970s with two of the most interesting albums of that decade. The Homer, Mich., Miller said he gets kidded a lot because of that, as people constantly ask him when he is going on tour again. But he doesn't have to because that other Steve Miller has played the arena twice so far.

"It's funny because I actually was the event coordinator at the arena for those concerts," he laughed. "When the event work order came out, I put 'Steve Miller Band" on it. I think a lot of people didn't get that.

"During the show there would be these radio calls for Steve Miller, and I think a lot of people who overheard the calls were wondering what was going on here."

As for his immediate future, Miller doesn't see himself flying like an eagle any time soon. Because of his connection with SMG and the new convention center, Miller plans to keep both feet firmly grounded in Grand Rapids.

"I see an exciting opportunity here with this director of sales position and the chance to be one of the key people to help sell Grand Rapids as a destination for these national conventions, as well as for the local market," he said.

"I see a great opportunity to really put Grand Rapids on the map."

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