Street Talk: For conventions, it’s GR vs. Detroit, not Muskegon


Doug Small’s job is to sell Grand Rapids to the convention and tourism industries. As president and “chief experience officer” at Experience Grand Rapids, the convention and tourism bureau, Small and his staff are overjoyed every time the once-famous Furniture City makes a prominent national list of cool places.

Last week, Small was on WGVU’s “West Michigan Week” to talk about Experience GR’s efforts to develop a “national brand” for the city. He said there are three main areas of the city’s appeal to convention planners and tourists: arts and culture, as reflected by ArtPrize; good restaurants and a national reputation for excellent craft beer; and natural resources.

“Thirty minutes to our west, we’ve got the greatest shoreline” on freshwater in the United States, said Small.

Muskegon, of course, is way closer to Lake Michigan. Not only that, Muskegon is right on Muskegon Lake, a deepwater port with direct access to Lake Michigan that at one time was written off due to generations of industrial pollution. But no more: Over the last few decades, Muskegon Lake has recovered beautifully and the shoreline industry is gone. Now the 6.5-square-mile lake is a thriving summer mecca for sail boaters, power craft enthusiasts and sport fishing fanatics.

So now Muskegon is cautiously mulling the “what if?” of having a small convention center someday. Granted, Muskegon is a much smaller city with less entertainment venues to offer than GR, and certainly far fewer of the necessary hotel rooms, but still — talk about natural resources!

Could Muskegon provide serious competition for conventions?

“I don’t think so,” said Small. “Infrastructure” — meaning a convention facility — “is certainly one thing,” he said, but more important is “the overall appeal of the destination.”

“Everybody’s competition,” he said, “so I don’t take it lightly. But there is much more to it than just putting a box up. You’ve got to fill that box, and you don’t fill that box just because you’ve got 100,000 square feet of space. As we are finding out, it’s very, very difficult to convince (meeting planners) to even come here to look at us.”

When potential clients do come to GR, the first thing they check on are the number of hotel rooms, he added — and then the restaurants and the entertainment possibilities.

Small was not being flippant with his use of the word “box.” He said “box” is the word people in the convention industry use when making a casual reference to a convention center or meeting center.

When it comes to landing major national conventions, the main Midwestern competition for Grand Rapids includes cities such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Columbus and Pittsburgh. Within Michigan, Experience GR’s primary competitor is Detroit, according to Small — not Lansing, even though Lansing has a convention center, too.

Despite the woes of Detroit that so many people talk about, he said, “what they are doing at Cobo right now is phenomenal. It’s going to be a wonderful meeting space,” with good hotels to back it up. And Detroit, he added, “is serious about going after large national groups.”

Patented response

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a patent case that could be critical to the computer software and related industries. The case, Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International, No. 13-298, addresses whether inventions based on computer software, such as processes controlled by computers, are eligible for patent protection.

“Although the Supreme Court will hear five patent cases this term, the CLS Bank case is the most important because it could have such a profound effect on so many industries,” said Professor David C. Berry, director of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Graduate Program in Intellectual Property Law.

“Many companies in the computer software, financial services and Internet-based industries, among others, have used patents to protect their key software-related technologies. The court’s ruling could call into question the validity of many thousands of patents already issued, and could block the Patent Office from granting other patents in the future.”

The CLS Bank case is the latest Supreme Court case testing the scope of protection available under Title 35 of the U.S. Code, Section 101, of the Patent Act. The section provides for broad protection of inventions, subject only to exclusions for laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas. During recent terms, the Supreme Court has issued decisions interpreting each of these exclusions, Berry said.

In CLS Bank, the justices will consider whether an invention that uses a computer to manage risk in financial transactions is an un-patentable “abstract idea.”

The judges on the lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, were unable to agree on a workable test to distinguish between computer-related inventions that are merely abstract ideas and those that are patentable applications of those ideas, he said. In CLS Bank, the Supreme Court will revisit the abstract idea exception and may provide additional guidance on what may be patented to the courts, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and inventors, according to Berry.

Inclusion collusion

A southwest Michigan-based foundation is helping the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance get its message out — with a $375,000 grant.

Alliance officials said they were “honored and excited” to receive the three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The funds will be used to support the organization’s promotion of racial equity and inclusion through a compilation of new initiatives and existing programming, including the 2014 Summit on Race and Inclusion.

“We are excited about the potential our research-based, nationally recognized programming has to bring new ideas, invigorating energy and meaningful growth to communities, businesses and organizations throughout the state of Michigan,” said Gail Harrison, executive director.

She said a significant emphasis of the grant in 2014 will be on the Summit on Race and Inclusion taking place May 21 at Hope College. Ten nationally and internationally recognized experts on racial equity will come to West Michigan from across the country to share the latest research and best practices with an audience of 800 attendees.

“We believe it is important to bring in experts from many fields so each attendee will have sector-specific, research-based information to help guide their understanding of barriers and solutions to inclusion within their realm. Whether community members, CEOs or organizations doing their work through a racial equity lens, every sector has their part to play. Providing tools to collectively advance racial equity will benefit us all,” Harrison said.

Part of the funding will go toward implementing the new Diversity Initiative of Northwest Ottawa County, which involves more than 40 leaders and hundreds of community members from the Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg communities.

“The U.S. population is a more diverse group than at any time in history,” said Harrison. “We all benefit when we embrace diversity and welcome our neighbors, employees and parishioners from racial backgrounds different from our own. Our future, both economic and social, depends on our response to promoting inclusion today.”

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