Focus and Travel & Tourism

Grand Rapids growing its reputation as convention-worthy city

Six large conferences already are on the books for 2014.

July 26, 2013
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Grand Rapids growing its reputation as convention-worthy city
The Michigan International Auto Show draws crowds to DeVos Place over four days. Courtesy ShowSpan

Thanks to increased marketing and direct sales efforts, as well as the successful Pure Michigan campaign that highlights not just the state but also West Michigan specifically, Grand Rapids is growing its reputation as a great location to host a national convention.

“As recently as four years ago, just 40 percent of convention business was considered ‘national’ in scope,” said Doug Small, Experience Grand Rapids president. “Today, nearly 65 percent of the business comes from national conventions, most of which are large, citywide-type groups.”

In the coming year, Grand Rapids is booked for the American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show, Mid-American Oireachtas (Irish Dance), National Homebrewers Annual Conference, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Annual Training, Society for the Study of Reproduction, and Adventist-Laymen’s Services & Industries International, all national shows.

Each of the conferences or conventions will bring between 1,000 and 4,000 attendees to the city.

Small said Grand Rapids still has a ways to go to be near the top of the pile when it comes to attracting national conventions, however, and the organization is focusing on leveraging West Michigan industries as a way to continue attracting national conferences to the area.

“We consider our strategy of ‘smart selling’ to be the most beneficial way to increase convention traffic,” Small said. “What we mean by that is we look at those industries that make up our business landscape in West Michigan and collaborate with them to bring groups here.

“For instance, we are working very diligently with the many health science professionals up and down the Medical Mile to the likes of Mary Free Bed, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and Metro Hospital to encourage them to bring all related association group business to Grand Rapids. … When you have a passionate, local supporter who sits on a board of a national association aligned with our primary business sources in West Michigan, our chances improve dramatically.”

Recently, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. established a new fund to help attract national and multi-state events, conventions and conferences to the state, which could help Grand Rapids compete, as well. It is a response to the growing practice by organizations of requiring a monetary guarantee from potential hosts to demonstrate financial capability and commitment to host such an event.

The fund includes a commitment of $500,000 through the end of the current fiscal year, and $1 million in each of the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years aimed at supporting the attraction of conferences. Experience Grand Rapids has already applied for funding for two conventions it is bidding for in 2014.

“It is so common that I am shocked when a group doesn’t ask for incentives, and in many cases if you don’t give what they ask for, they will find someone that will ante up,” Small said.

That is not to say Grand Rapids is in the practice of “buying” national conventions.

“We do not proactively offer incentive funds to any group, but on the flip side, it has become common to find a list of ‘concessions’ from most groups in their request for proposals.”

Small notes the city’s 4-Diamond tourism infrastructure and service offered at 2-Diamond prices also remains important, and he expects the introduction of Southwest Airlines will further improve Grand Rapids’ competitiveness in the convention market.

Though a lot of focus has been on attracting national conventions, Small said Michigan associations also are important and are vital contributors to the Grand Rapids convention market.

“While we continue to increase our national brand recognition and grow related convention traffic, we must also recognize that the Michigan association business provides us with one-third of our total room nights annually. In addition to the numbers, they also tend to meet during the first quarter of the year — a time that is very difficult to attract national groups to a northern climate city.”

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