Festival is banner event for CAA

October 20, 2008
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The banners announcing the festival have been hanging from downtown light poles for a few weeks now, even though the opening of the three-day event is still a month away.

The early run-up of those banners indicate the importance of the first Grand Rapids International Wine and Food Festival to the Convention and Arena Authority, the seven-member body that oversees operations at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, the event’s location.

The festival is set to run from Nov. 21-23 in the 40,000-square-foot Steelcase Ballroom in the convention center. The CAA has partnered with Showspan Inc., which produces many of the consumer-oriented shows held in DeVos Place, for the event. Any surplus revenue the CAA collects from the festival will go into its capital improvements budget and be spent on upgrades for both buildings.

Being a co-promoter is a big step for the CAA, as it will be the biggest financial risk the board has taken on an event so far. Over the past two years, the CAA has backed two family shows that played in DeVos Performance Hall, but neither presented as much risk for the panel as the Wine and Food Festival offers. Even though the stakes are higher, CAA Chairman Steven Heacock and his fellow board members felt the risk was worth taking.

“There are times of the year when the building is pretty empty. We have this magnificent ballroom and facility that we think could be used more. In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being reactive because promoters would come to us and we’d say, ‘Sure, rent our building,’ and that luxury continues,” said Heacock.

“But the truth is there are times when we have to step up as an entity, and we’re in a position where we’re mature enough now where we feel we can do that. So there have been a couple of events where we’ve co-promoted or taken some risks. As chair, I sort of said to the board, ‘Let’s take a look at other ways we could bring more revenue to the CAA so we can better protect the assets and fill the buildings that we have,” he added.

The CAA tempered its risk by bringing Showspan aboard as its partner; the firm is led by President John Loeks Jr. and Vice President Henri Boucher. To cut the risk even further, Showspan hired an experienced festival producer in Kathleen MacDonald.

Showspan will get 20 percent of the event revenue from the agreement it has with the CAA, except for the income that comes from the sale of sampling tickets. The food and wine exhibitors will get 80 percent of that revenue, with the rest going to the CAA. The CAA will keep all the rental income.

Showspan and the CAA will split any loss if the event runs a deficit.

Early in the process, CAA Executive Director Rich MacKeigan estimated the event could turn a profit as high as $80,000. A few weeks ago, the sale of booths and sponsorships had pushed the surplus past $35,000.

Harvey Lexus has signed on as the event’s presenting sponsor. Meijer Inc. is sponsoring the food-preparation stage, with Tasters Guild International doing the same for the wine stage. About 100 wineries are expected and several of the city’s better restaurants will also be represented. MacKeigan said he would be delighted if the event drew 8,000 through the turnstiles.

“This show probably will spill out by the Steelcase Ballroom and use part of the Secchia lobby,” he said.

“There is no big equipment. The items being exhibited are bottles of wine, not huge pieces of machinery or cars or boats. So when you put it in perspective, it is a very large show,” he added.

MacKeigan said the event still needs some volunteers, hoping for 100 over the three days. And he said they’re still talking with a few more potential sponsors and exhibitors.

“We’re also working on the inventory and ticketing system; so the concept of taking delivery of the wine, figuring out where it will be stored, and how we’ll get it to and from the exhibitors’ booths,” he said of things left to be done. “It’s really getting down the logistics, and we’re still working on a couple of key sponsorships and the volunteer aspect.”

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