Weather Decides Schedule

March 2, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Many comments are made here about winter weather. More of those remarks, though, deal with sore backs from shoveling snow than the effect winter can have on certain segments of the local economy.

But weather is often a key indicator of how successful a consumer show at DeVos Place will be, because the bulk of the tickets that are sold for a show are sold at the door on the day of the show. A sunny and dry day usually means higher attendance for an event, while a cold wind and some blowing snow normally keeps consumers at home.

And that yin-and-yang scenario has held true for the shows held in the convention center so far this season, one that began with a bridal show in early January.

SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said bad weather has been responsible for some days of low turnout at the Michigan International Auto Show and the Boat Show. But he also said attendance for both soared on the shows’ respective Saturdays when the snow stopped and the sun shined pretty brightly.

“They definitely sold a lot of boats at the Boat Show,” said MacKeigan.

Another good-weather weekend for the Golf Show provided the promoter and vendors with an attendance that topped the event’s all-time record turnout of 12,000.

“I think most of those that attended just wanted to see something green,” said Birgit Klohs, a member of the Convention and Arena Authority.

“The vendors were giddy,” added MacKeigan about the weekend turnout.

Still, DeVos Place lost $150,167 in January, the opening month for the consumer show season, largely because the attendance of 54,622 was roughly half of the 111,000 the shows drew for the same month last year. Less traffic through the turnstiles meant event income in January was down by about $80,000, and ancillary income was $23,000 less than January 2007.

SMG Director of Finance Chris Machuta reported that activity in the next couple of months will determine the building’s overall financial performance this year. At the end of January, DeVos Place was $428,838 in the red for the fiscal year or roughly $50,000 “redder” than it was at the same time last year.

Consumer shows will run into April; then conventions and other business meetings will fill more of the building for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“We’ve got a lot of good things going right now. We’ve got a lot of things on the plate, and we’re not missing a beat now that I’m leaving,” said Steve Wilson, longtime president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wilson is leaving the post later this month to become executive director of the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, his hometown. He said when he does leave he will take a key part of what has impressed him about the city with him to his new job.

“Grand Rapids has a way of aligning behind a vision. Once that vision is established, whether it’s for a particular project or a particular issue, they’re able to align behind it. That is something a lot of communities don’t have. But I’d like to take that ability to build a broad coalition and align it behind a vision for Flint,” he said.

But Wilson doesn’t think one of the latest trends in the meeting industry — holding video conferences where delegates are linked to each other via the Internet — would work well here because the CVB has had much of its success come from religious and hobby groups.

“Given the markets that we specialize in, that face-to-face interaction is still important,” he said.

Virtual conferencing would also deny downtown hotels, bars and restaurants much of the revenue they get from a meeting’s delegates. Wilson said a restaurant owner told him that attendees to the rabbit breeders’ convention “made his year,” as customers lined up out the door throughout the event’s run in DeVos Place.

As for Van Andel Arena, the building had a $75,000 surplus in January, a figure that was more than double the $33,000 margin it recorded for the same month in 2007. 

SMG Marketing Director Lynne Ike said the arena had seven sell-out events all of last year, but already has six sellouts this year. MacKeigan indicated the building would easily and quickly top last year’s number of sellouts, as perennial favorite Kenny Chesney has two dates.

Attendance for Grand Rapids Griffins games is up this year by more than 9 percent from last year’s figure, which was the team’s best number in its past four seasons.

Through 29 home games this season, the Griffins have drawn 188,439 to the arena, an average attendance of 6,500 per game, which is good enough to place the franchise sixth in the 29-team American Hockey League. Special autograph guests, a stint by forward Darren McCarty, and $1 beers and hot dogs have helped pump up turnout.

“The hockey team numbers are awfully good,” said MacKeigan.

The arena had a surplus of $700,000 through January, which was on budget to reach the $1.2 million margin that was projected for the building last summer. But that January surplus was still $300,000 below the surplus recorded through January 2007.

Last year the arena enjoyed its second-highest margin of all time at $1.7 million.

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