CVB On The Convention Stump

September 22, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Convention and Visitors Bureau recently locked in a national conference that could turn out to be a big revenue generator for local business owners.

And this time it’s not just the number of delegates coming here that could make the cash registers sing, it’s the length of time they’ll be staying here.

Bureau President Steve Wilson revealed last week that the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) will hold its annual conference at DeVos Place in August 2010. He said the organization would bring 1,800 members to the city for the meeting and that many would spend up to 10 days here — more than double the time most conventioneers visit a host city.

That long a stay means NARFE delegates will spend more money — and likely with more businesses — than those who come here for the typical three- or four-day stay. The CVB estimated the NARFE delegates will spend $1.2 million while they are here.

Wilson said the CVB won the NARFE meeting over bids from Dallas, Kansas City, Palm Springs and Reno — topping the Nevada city on the final ballot by using a sales pitch that was well-researched and designed to get the necessary votes.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last two years since the building opened,” said Wilson.

“You almost have to be like you’re campaigning, running for office,” added George Helmstead, CVB vice president of sales.

That campaigning approach included sending every member of the sales team to public speaking classes where they learned not only how to address large groups, but also when to pause, how to stand, and when to gesture — just like a political candidate at a rally.

The effort also included having voting members fill out a questionnaire specifically designed for them, so that the CVB could find out what they were looking for in a meeting place and a host city.

“We went as far as to find out why they were meeting in Albuquerque,” said Janet Korn, CVB marketing director, of the last NARFE gathering. “We’re trying to move the vote in our direction.”

The campaign also included a David Letterman-type list of the top 10 reasons why NARFE should hold its meeting here, the former “home office” of the “Late Night” host.

“We personalize. We try to present 10 top reasons why they should come here. We campaign,” said Korn.

“Another piece of that is we’re going in early. It’s like a political campaign,” said Wilson.

Besides staying here for 10 days, NARFE delegates are also expected to bring family members with them, and Wilson said they are interested in seeing all of West Michigan.

Having the group come here in August is another boost for local businesses and the convention center, as that month and July are typically the two worst revenue months for the building. DeVos Place has lost $433,000 in July and August this year, which is roughly half of the shortfall that has been forecast for the building for the current fiscal year.

“June, July and August are going to be the worst months,” said SMG Director of Finance Chris Machuta. “The next six or seven months will be much closer to a breakeven point.”

Wilson said the bureau uses an emotional sales pitch when it speaks to members of an organization it is trying to lure here, but then switches to an economic approach when it talks to boards. And for the NARFE meeting, an independent analysis showed that the city’s per-diem cost of $173.37 for a delegate was lower than most other cities that were vying for the conference.

“You’re reaching out and identifying the groups where Grand Rapids is a perfect fit,” said Lew Chamberlin, Convention and Arena Authority board member. “That’s neat.” 

An Affordable Stay

An out-of-town delegate to a convention or conference will spend less per day in Grand Rapids than in six other cities that the local Convention and Visitors Bureau competes with for bookings on a regular basis.

City                      Average Per Diem Cost
Grand Rapids                     $173.37
Albuquerque                      $174.01
Kansas City                        $187.89
Dallas                                 $201.65
Reno                                   $202.83
Denver                               $221.63
San Diego                           $285.93

Source: Runzheimer International, August 2006     

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