Arts & Entertainment, Food Service & Agriculture, and Travel & Tourism

Beer draws tourists, $7M to Kent County

GVSU study finds more than 42,000 came last year.

October 19, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) When Experience Grand Rapids heads to trade shows, it often sets up a mini Founders Brewing taproom — complete with co-founder Dave Engbers.

Right down the aisle, Louisville, Kentucky, does the same thing with bourbon, said Experience Grand Rapids President and CEO Doug Small.

“It really draws people to the booth,” Small said.

Beer also is drawing people to Grand Rapids, according to a new study released by Grand Valley State University and commissioned by Experience Grand Rapids.

Through surveys and brewery sales data, GVSU professors Dan Giedeman, Paul Isely and Gerry Simons found more than 42,000 people came to Grand Rapids specifically for beer tourism last year, with a direct spending impact of more than $7 million.

Not many other regions promote beer as aggressively as West Michigan, and Small said it’s likely because they aren’t fully aware beer is such a big draw.

“The craft beer thing is still fairly new, and people don’t get it,” he said, drawing on his experience working in Denver, which, despite having a large beer industry, did not invest in promoting it.

Experience Grand Rapids took advantage of the trend and invested heavily in the promotion of craft beer, not knowing what would happen. Small said it was time to find out if the investment was worth the money.

Small equates the effort to Napa Valley’s marketing of its wine industry. He said he believes only Asheville, North Carolina, markets beer as aggressively as Grand Rapids.

“After years of efforts and promotion, it was time to see if we should continue,” he said, referring to Experience Grand Rapids’ commission for the study.

“It turns out our beer scene is a big part of our brand.”

The surveys were completed during the spring and summer of 2015 and during the 2015 Michigan Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark.

There were 458 surveys filled out, including 129 by visitors to Grand Rapids who were here specifically because of the craft beer scene. Approximately 17 percent of respondents were from West Michigan, and 31 percent were from outside the state. The largest concentration of respondents was from the Greater Detroit area, at 11 percent.

Most beer tourists stayed in the city for two or three days.

According to the study, approximately 31 percent of expenditures went toward craft beer, with another 30 percent going toward lodging. Food made up 23 percent of spending, while entertainment, retail and transportation made up the remaining 16 percent.

About 30 percent of respondents said they were visiting two breweries while here, while nearly 50 percent said they were visiting four or more breweries.

The average spending of a visitor in Grand Rapids for beer tourism was $174.67.

Combined with sales data provided by area breweries, the survey found that 42,246 people spent 91,675 days in Kent County for beer tourism. About 13,000 of those visitors were from outside the state, according to the study.

Those numbers are likely conservative and don’t show the full effect of craft beer on the community, Small said. The study only recognized those in town specifically for beer, not for a concert or other event.

Small said a large reason Kent County has broken its hotel lodging records for six years in a row is because leisure travel is increasing, owing to such draws as craft beer and arts and culture.

“Our leisure business has grown substantially,” he said, comparing it to conventions and meetings and corporate travel. “Our weekend business is where we’ve seen the increases.”

The study was able to point to $7.05 million in direct spending because of beer tourism, including $2.1 million on craft beer.

That direct spending is about 0.5 percent of spending in the Grand Rapids/Wyoming area on accommodations and food.

The GVSU study comes a few months after the release of Beer Serves America, a study by The Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association. The study broke down the beer industry’s impact by congressional district.

According to Beer Serves America, the Michigan 3rd Congressional District sees a $54.9 million economic output from brewing.

The cumulative effect of beer tourism spending, according to the GVSU study, is $12.3 million in additional goods and services, $3.33 million in additional earnings and 171 additional jobs.

Because of the strong numbers, Experience Grand Rapids announced its Beer Passport program, which will allow guests of Grand Rapids breweries to collect stamps and become a “Brewsader,” which includes a T-shirt.

“What the study shows is merit to continue this push,” Small said. “We can’t just promote that we have 20 or 30 breweries but the story behind it and talk about the experience around it.”

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