JW Marriott Offers 'Friendly Competition'

September 9, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the new JW Marriott Grand Rapids luxury hotel prepares to open for business on Sept. 21, the $229 question is: Will enough travelers be willing to pay that starting room rate?

JW Marriott executives aren't worried, nor is the owner, Amway Hotel Corp. They are banking on a new breed of business traveler involved with the life sciences industry cropping up in West Michigan.

Amway Hotel Corp., a subsidiary of Alticor, also owns the Amway Grand Plaza and the Grand Rapids Downtown Courtyard by Marriott. All three hotels are within a few hundred yards of each other on the river downtown.

Starting weekday rates at the Amway Grand and the Courtyard Marriott are $169 and $149 respectively, compared to the JW Marriot's $229 starting weekday rate.

When asked if the new hotel will take business away from the Amway Grand, JW Marriott general manager George Aquino said there will be "friendly competition." He added that the three hotels would work together on trying to attract guests coming here for major conventions and events.

The opulent 24-story, 337-room JW Marriott Grand Rapids took two years to build and cost $100 million. The elliptical-shaped tower has a 24-story atrium trimmed with blue lights, visible at night to traffic on U.S. 131. There is a heliport on the roof, hardwood floors and marble bathrooms in the guest rooms, and three concierge floors with special amenities.

The hotel ballroom can seat up to 1,300, the largest in West Michigan and almost double the capacity of the Amway Grand ballroom, according to Aquino. The JW Marriott has 24-hour room service and an upscale restaurant, six.one.six, that will serve meals until 11 p.m. — a rarity for Grand Rapids restaurants, noted Michael Lyman, director of sales and marketing at the new hotel. The executive chef, John State, is described by Lyman as one of the new breed of chefs with a rock star level of acclaim. State is an alumnus of the Washburne Trade School in Chicago, and most recently was the chef at the California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orlando, Fla.

A new $15 million parking ramp was also built adjacent to the hotel, accommodating 550 cars.

The Founder's Suite at the top of the JW Marriott goes for $2,500 a night, while seven other suites are $399 a night.

When asked if the JW Marriott's room rates are a gamble in Grand Rapids, Bert Crandell, project executive at Amway Hotel Corp., said it's "a bet on the Grand Rapids future, just the way the Amway Grand was 30 years ago." He said there was no major study then that indicated the Amway Grand (a four-star, four-diamond luxury hotel) would be successful, but Amway founders Rich DeVos and Jay VanAndel "had faith in their hometown."

Crandell said that due to competition from the JW Marriott, "we'll lose a few points of occupancy" at the Amway Grand and the Marriott Courtyard. But he said occupancy at the two older hotels will grow back over time. He said the corporation anticipates a five-year stabilization period for the downtown hotels.

"We signed with Marriott because of their sales network," said Crandell. He also mentioned that Marriott's frequent customer rewards program is so strong that "people will stay to get the points."

Marriott International has nearly 2,900 lodging properties in the United States and 68 other countries. It operates and franchises hotels under the brands Marriott, JW Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Courtyard, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites and Bulgari. Marriott International also has several vacation time-share brands.

Both Crandell and Aquino cited Marriott International's strong marketing network throughout the world. They also commented on the new class of business travelers coming to Grand Rapids in connection with the burgeoning life sciences industry. Aquino estimates that 70 percent of the guests at the JW Marriott will be business travelers, 20 percent will be coming here for conventions and group meetings, and 10 percent will be leisure travelers.

While conceding that not all conventioneers coming to Grand Rapids will be willing to pay the JW Marriott's rates, Aquino said they are "hoping to attract a different group that historically has never been to Grand Rapids." He was referring specifically to the life sciences industry, which includes research scientists, physicians and other health professionals, plus representatives of pharmaceutical companies and medical device and supply companies.

Most cities the size of Grand Rapids would have 2,400 rooms within walking distance of DeVos Place convention center, according to Aquino, who previously worked at the Amway Grand and at a major hotel in Chicago. "Prior to the JW (Marriott), we had less than a thousand. Now we're about 1,200. So we're halfway there."

Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau said Grand Rapids is "going after new business … a new caliber of clients that we have been missing."

The JW Marriott and other hotels in the community are ideally suited for the business and meeting travelers coming here for the life sciences industry, according to Wilson. He said the bio tech/life science conferences will be smaller groups than some of the larger conventions in Grand Rapids — 300 people rather than the 3,000 that came for the coin collectors’ convention recently. But the health and science professionals will "likely pay a higher rate."

The business strategy behind building a JW Marriott in Grand Rapids "is not 'more of the same.' It's to open up new business markets," said Wilson.

Wilson said hotel rates in the Grand Rapids area have long been a selling point for cost-conscious travelers. But the average daily room rate is increasing here: It was $80 a night at the end of 2006, up nearly 5 percent from the previous year, according to Wilson.

The average occupancy rate of all hotels in Kent County stood at 56 percent at the end of 2006, noted Wilson. He said that was a couple of percentage points higher than the rest of the state. And "some of the hotels in our community are consistently in the 80s (percent of occupancy). The brand is probably the biggest factor there."

The new JW Marriott has an international flair reflected in its main decorative feature: More than a thousand photographs in the rooms and public areas were shot by Grand Rapids photographer Dan Watts in the Grand Rapids Sister Cities: Omihachiman, Japan; Perugia, Italy; Bielsko-Biala, Poland; Ga District, Ghana; and Zapopan, Mexico.

Lyman said wedding receptions will also be good business for the JW Marriott; its first is booked in October.

Aquino said the hotel received 4,000 applications for employment and has hired about 250. Those hired are "primarily" local people, although the number includes some who are originally from West Michigan — such as Chef John State — but had professional career experience in hotels and restaurants in major cities elsewhere.    

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