Convention Business Here Displaying Steady Growth

May 18, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — If you were downtown a few weeks ago and your fillings tingled a bit, it was probably because a record number of dentists attended the Michigan Dental Association convention held recently at DeVos Place.

Normally, 4,000 show up. But 5,000 dentists were at this meeting, the most to ever attend the group’s annual conference — wherever it has been held. That attendance mark is indicative of how DeVos Place is growing as a meeting spot — not only for state associations like the dental group but also for national and regional organizations.

Since the exhibit space opened in December 2003, Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Vice President George Helmstead said his team has booked 350 meetings for the building, bookings that run through the year 2015. How does that number compare to the bureau’s expectations when the woodworkers convention christened the still-under-construction center more than four years ago? Overwhelming is the answer.

“We probably would have been happy with 200 bookings today,” said Helmstead.

“In 2003, we started out with three bookings. In 2007, we had 62. So it has been a steady climb each year.”

The 350 meetings are worth somewhere north of $200 million in total expenditures from those groups. Helmstead said 87 additional possible bookings are on the bureau’s tentative list. Seeing that the CVB usually closes the deal on a third of those bookings, Helmstead felt the bureau would lock up about 30 of them if everything goes as it has in the past.

“It’s been a standard for us,” he said of the one-third capture rate. “I think we do a deeper, in-depth research on the groups before we put them on the books than some other cities do. They’ll put a tentative on their books from an inquiry. We put a tentative on it if the group is specifically looking at our city.

“So our closure rate is higher than other cities because of that factor. They’ll have a lot more tentative business than us. But when it comes to booked business, we usually turn out more.”

As the booked business has grown, so has the bureau. Just before its longtime president Steve Wilson resigned to take a job in his native Flint, he recalled how the bureau had a staff of seven and an annual budget of $400,000 when he came here in 1996. When Wilson left in March, he said the staff numbered 23 and the CVB spending plan topped $4 million.

During the last fiscal year, 158 meetings brought 142,520 delegates through the DeVos Place doors. Educational groups, medical and health groups, and toy and hobby associations met here the most often, with the American Rabbit Breeders Association convention probably being the most memorable recent event.

But the bureau’s attention will be shifting slightly from those groups, at least temporarily, and turning toward religious organizations, which will hold two of the larger meetings here in the near future.

“One big one that we have is the United Church of Christ for July of next year, and that is bringing in about 3,200 people for over a week, which will bring in almost 8,000 room nights into the city worth close to $4 million,” said Helmstead, who credited Rev. Bill Lyons and Mayor George Heartwell, also a UCC minister, with playing influential roles in capturing the booking.

The other highly anticipated meeting happens six months later in late January, when the Religious Conference Management Association comes to DeVos Place. It’s a booking that Helmstead recently called the “Super Bowl” of religious conferences.

“That meeting isn’t so significant because of its size, although it is 1,500 people. But it is significant because there will be 400 or 500 meeting planners in that group of 1,500 that actually plan conventions for their own religious groups,” he said.

Planners who belong to the RCMA put together about 16,000 conventions and meetings each year that attract over 14 million people.

“We’re forecasting there could be a potential of $15 million worth of revenue to the city, and that is about the average after they leave a city. The best thing for us is that once it was announced two years ago, we had three large conventions — one the United Church of Christ — that looked at us because they never considered us before but felt since the RCMA is coming here, they should take a look, and two of them booked,” Helmstead said.

“So not only did we book the convention, but we didn’t have to wait for the result. That was almost immediate.”

Bureau Vice President Janet Korn said the CVB’s marketing effort to the association is continuing even though the conference is already set in stone. She said the CVB is mailing materials to members and buying ads in the RCMA monthly newsletter to further impress the meeting planners of the bureau’s interest in them.

“This is the opportunity for us to catapult ourselves into being a host city for religious conferences,” said Korn.

Helmstead pointed out there is an added bonus to having religious groups meet here, and that is the delegates stick around longer than most other convention-goers.

“They stay all week and they turn into tourists. They come in a little bit early or they stay a little bit later, and they spend more time in the city than just attending the convention. A lot of times in the summer, they turn their visits into vacations. We call them leisure travelers. So it’s a great market and a great piece of business.”

With the additional rooms the JW Marriott hotel gives downtown — now a total of 1,200 — Helmstead said the bureau can pitch larger conventions, whose meeting planners normally want delegates staying within walking distance of a meeting place. But being able to go after national and regional business, which often delivers the larger conventions, forces the CVB to compete against bureaus in bigger cities like Denver and Indianapolis. So strangely enough, the more the CVB goes national, the more vital local input becomes to the bureau.

“The majority of the conventions that we book are because of a local host committee or a state host committee, and we can’t bring the conventions to town without them. They’re the most important part of our sales process,” said Helmstead.

“So if there is a reader out there that is part of any organization that is thinking about bringing a convention to town, tell them to give us a call.”

As for the record number of dentists that came here last month, Helmstead wasn’t sure whether Grand Rapids’ history as a pioneer in community water fluoridation had anything to do with drawing so many to the building. He did say, though, that whatever it was that brought them here was a good thing and that the bureau hopes to see them come here more often.

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