Travelers To 'Health Mecca' Key To JW's Success

October 5, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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The new JW Marriott luxury hotel in downtown Grand Rapids is betting on an increasing flow of life sciences and biotech professionals to West Michigan to fill its rooms in the years to come.

It's a safe bet.

The hotel is owned by the Amway Hotel Group, a subsidiary of Alticor, which saw the future possibilities years ago as the Van Andel Institute was launched. Local thinkers-and-doers were talking 10 years ago about Grand Rapids someday being a major center of medical care and education, and R&D involving biotech, the life sciences and the medical devices industry.

"Someday" is here, in the view of the management of the new JW Marriott.

Those new visitors to Grand Rapids "have been on our radar screen from the very beginning. We're a medical destination," said Michael Lyman, director of sales and marketing at the JW Marriott, comparing Grand Rapids to Cleveland (The Cleveland Clinic) and Rochester, Minn., home to the Mayo Clinic.

Destination, indeed. Some even say "mecca," according to The New York Times.

Under a July 11 headline reading "Grand Rapids Lays Foundations for a Health Mecca," the Times reported the extensive construction under way on "Health Hill," also known as Michigan Street, that will employ 5,000 in medicine and life sciences R&D by 2010, double the number working there now.

That means there will be a lot of life sciences professionals traveling to our "mecca."

With weekday rates starting at $229 a night (the introductory rate for weekends is $169 per night), the JW Marriott is by far the most expensive hotel in Grand Rapids. But medical and life sciences professionals are generally considered to be in a higher income bracket than many business travelers, and will "likely pay a higher rate, so will stay at facilities like the JW Marriott," according to Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wilson notes that the medical research work being done here has already led to a number of major meetings in Grand Rapids, requiring hotel rooms. In fact, one of the first was seven years ago, when hundreds of some of the most highly regarded cancer research professionals from around the world came here to attend a symposium at the VAI on "Cancer & Molecular Genetics in the Twenty-First Century."

There have been many other meetings on Health Hill since, with more to come.

Wilson noted, however, that the medical and research industry meetings here are much smaller groups than the typical large conventions at DeVos Place. As for major medical profession conventions, "typically, they prefer resort and international locations — sunbelt locations," said Wilson.

That's not necessarily daunting news for JW Marriott: General Manager George Aquino said they expect 70 percent of the rooms to be booked by individual business travelers, while conventioneers are expected to make up about 20 percent of the traffic. The remaining 10 percent are expected to be leisure travelers.

Lyman said some of the company's marketing to the biotech and medical research industries is through direct contact, when there are meetings being planned here. When targeting a specific conference or convention, the company gets help from the CVB, and the JW Marriott management also works with the other Amway Hotel Group hotels in downtown Grand Rapids: The Amway Grand Plaza and the Grand Rapids Downtown Courtyard by Marriott.

Lyman said the hotels also advertise routinely in trade publications targeting convention and meeting planners.

Both Lyman and Aquino emphasized that the marketing power of Marriott International will help build awareness of the new JW Marriott here.

Marriott International, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., reported $12 billion in sales in fiscal 2006, with 151,000 employees at almost 2,900 properties around the world.

Roger Conner, vice president of communications at Marriott International, said every major industry or association in the world is the focus of specific teams of individuals in the Marriott sales and marketing department.

"We have a very large and highly honored sales organization," he said. "Every year for the last several years, we've been named to the top 25 sales organizations in the country" by Sales and Marketing Management Magazine, he said.

Marriott International also has a customer loyalty program called Marriott Rewards that has more members than any other hotel chain, according to Conner. Members regularly receive promotional information and points for staying at the various Marriott International hotels, which include Marriott, JW Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Courtyard, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites and Bulgari.

The Marriott Rewards program "really helps bring business to any new (Marriott) hotel," said Conner.

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place economic development group in Grand Rapids, said the JW Marriott marquee "will make a huge difference" to people who travel often. She said it is a hotel brand people recognize throughout the world and "it immediately connotes quality."

To people who travel in the medical and biotech industries, "$229 is pretty inexpensive when you are looking at spending 450 bucks at a Sheraton at an airport anywhere in Europe — or more," she said.

Research conferences sponsored by VAI bring in professionals who are also veteran world travelers, "the kind of customer I think would be very attracted to the new JW Marriott," said Klohs.

The close proximity to the new Michigan State University medical school, and the expanding hospitals and R&D labs, are also expected to lead to increased visits here by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical firm, had $44 billion in sales in 2005, with more than 9,000 sales representatives. And Pfizer is just one of a number of giant pharmaceutical firms.

Yet another of the new breed of well-heeled corporate travelers to Grand Rapids will be involved with the medical devices industry. Stryker in Kalamazoo is one of the best-known names among medical device manufacturers in the world, but there are others growing in West Michigan. The West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative helped nine of them form a consortium in June to promote their specialized expertise in medical device products, from design through manufacturing, to companies worldwide.

The West Michigan Medical Device Consortium membership includes ATEK Medical, Autocam Medical, Emerald Medical Devices and Supplies, Inrad Inc., MedBio Inc., Cascade Life Solutions and Surge Medical.

Kim Bode, marketing director of the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative —located on Health Hill in Grand Valley State University's new $60 million Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences — said medical and biotech professionals throughout the United States are well aware of the growing importance of Grand Rapids in those fields.

The annual Michbio Expo was held in Grand Rapids last year, which "brought a lot of companies in," said Bode.

Recently, Bode attended a conference in Boston put on by BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization. There she met many people who were already well-aware of what West Michigan is doing. "It's almost a word-of-mouth thing. We're becoming a global destination for life sciences," she said

According to the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative Web site, the West Michigan life sciences industry is the sixth largest in the nation, and growing. In mid-August, The Right Place and the Kalamazoo-based Southwest Michigan First released the results of a joint study that contains investment, incentive and funding recommendations to bring the region's pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries into the global spotlight.

The region is the sixth largest biopharmaceuticals cluster in the U.S., with a recent investment of over $1 billion in life science endeavors. In addition, there are more than 850 clinical trials currently open in West Michigan, according to the research done by The Right Place and Southwest Michigan First. HQX

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