Downtown hotel marks a decade
JW Marriott brings in $4.4M for tourism marketing in 10-year period, draws 1.5 million guests to downtown.
The local franchise of nationwide hospitality chain JW Marriott opened in 2007 at 235 Louis St. NW.
It added a luxury option to a lodging landscape that now includes the JW, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (founded in 1913 as The Pantlind and reopened in 1981), the Homewood Suites by Hilton, CityFlatsHotel and a Holiday Inn, as well as the 12-story Hyatt Place coming to the Warner Building, the AC Hotel by Marriott at 50 Monroe Ave. NW, and Suburban Inns’ Embassy Suites on North Monroe — all planned or in progress.
Brian Behler, JW Marriott Grand Rapids general manager, said the hotel has rented out 750,000 rooms since opening, bringing nearly 1.5 million visitors to downtown for conventions and tourism.
Its 10-year average occupancy rate has been 62 percent, and it is expected to hit 75 percent in 2017. This compares to the average combined Kent County hotel occupancy rates of around 68 percent in 2016, according to Experience Grand Rapids and a November 2016 Business Journal report.
Between its hotel, restaurant six.one.six and cocktail lounge Mixology, the JW employs 323 people.
Behler attributes the success of the franchise in this market in part to the brand’s core values of authenticity, craftsmanship and warmth.
“We think we’ve brought the next level of attraction to the city that we are that cool, hip place people want to be seen at,” he said. “We’ve elevated the level of hospitality.”
But he also points to the JW’s commitment to forging local partnerships.
“(It’s about) how can we impact the guests’ lives and how can we impact the community?” he said.
“From the restaurant standpoint, when we opened, the farm-to-table movement was new, and we kept that focus with six.one.six. We have about 18 local farms that we source from for six.one.six.
“And we do utilize WM FarmLink,” a co-op that purchases farm produce and sells it to local restaurants, all in one warehouse location.
“It’s a cool concept, and it’s great for the farmers,” he said.
The hotel also piggybacks on Grand Rapids’ Beer City, USA, title earned in 2013 by offering hops-infused pedicures and spa treatments. It sells a Beer City, USA, package that includes four locally brewed beers served in-room, as well as a map and “passport” to Beer City.
As new developments moved into downtown, the JW struck up other partnerships.
“When the Downtown Market opened, we started collaborating with them, with our Gourmet Gateway Package,” Behler said. The package offers a $50 gift card to the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, along with swag and discounts to the market’s wares.
“As the leader, I try to connect with what’s latest and greatest in the city and how do we partner with (businesses) to stay relevant,” he said.
In 2009, the JW opened the jdek, which offers riverside seating on the hotel’s outdoor deck, and opened an accompanying full outdoor bar in 2016. He said the move has helped with “activating the riverfront,” which feeds other downtown businesses.
Behler said the hotel supports the Grand Rapids Whitewater nonprofit’s goal to restore the rapids to the Grand River.
“We’re intrigued by that because it’s going to bring a sense of urban adventure tourism, which is very attractive to many generations — hiking, biking and kayaking,” he said.
“It will make the experience that much cooler with people coming by on kayaks as you’re out on the deck.”
He said the ability for tourists to fully use the river without the dam would incentivize hotel guests to take advantage of a kayaking package offered through GR Paddling, as well as bike rentals the hotel will offer once negotiations with the rental company are finalized.
“(Guests) could bike along the river, catch the White Pine Trail, bike up to Rockford and back,” he said, noting that they would likely stop and spend money at destinations along the way.
Behler said Founders Brewing Co. hosts a large annual fundraising event for Grand Rapids Whitewater, and the JW hosts the after-party on the jdek to show its support for the project.
The JW Marriott Grand Rapids also emphasizes “community social care,” with the leadership team members and employees volunteering regularly with Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and Kids’ Food Basket, as well as donating time and money to United Way and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“We provide lots of donations to organizations like Goodwill, as well as Senior Neighbors,” Behler said. “Used linens and terry towels we would normally send to recycle, we provide them to those organizations.
“We also do Experience Pink, which is a Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness event. Experience Grand Rapids leads the initiative, and we participate as a hotel, raising funds and awareness for it.”
The hotel serves as the venue for annual galas for nonprofits such as Ronald McDonald House and Mel Trotter Ministries, as well as LaughFest and foundation events.
In addition to the guest room and common areas renovation project the hotel completed a year ago, Behler said the JW plans to upgrade its meeting and event spaces in 2018 and 2019, adding higher-tech, modern features, as well as “cosmetic” adjustments.
Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, Kent County’s convention and visitors bureau, said the JW has generated $4,454,117.62 over the past decade through the 4 percent room assessment fees it pays to Experience GR to fund the county’s destination marketing efforts (see chart).
The hotel also pays a 5 percent lodging excise tax to Kent County. The revenue sum generated from that tax was not available as of press time.
Small said the hotel has been a boon to the city and county for the past decade.
“While our success as a convention city has grown dramatically since the opening of the JW Marriott, we believe that it’s globally recognized, first-class brand has elevated the city’s status as a player in the visitor industry,” he said.
“When opened, it was the first JW Marriott in the Midwest, and prospective visitors and convention clients took note and realized that Grand Rapids was serious about elevating its brand recognition as a city on the move.
“The hotel is certainly a shiny trophy which we celebrate and proudly promote as we continue our record-setting pace for hotel performance in our community.”