Bigger cities challenge Grand Rapids’ convention market


Conventions have contributed to the Grand Rapids economy year-round, but competition from nearby cities continues to be a challenge.

According to Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, the organization bid for and assisted on 343 groups convening in Kent County in 2017, compared to 332 in 2016. Through the first six months of 2018, Experience GR has assisted 194 groups.

The added groups has resulted in an increase in hotel rooms occupied (327,585 in 2016 to 337,966 in 2017) as well as direct spending ($146 million in 2016 to $175 million in 2017). Through the first six months of 2018, nearly 93,000 hotel rooms have been occupied, resulting in just over $87 million in direct spending.

“Convention meetings come in all shapes, sizes and looks, but they are very lucrative for our community,” he said. “Twelve months out of the year, we have a steady convention pace. We have become a destination that has booked convention meetings 12 months out of the year.”

Convention meetings also are held during the cold winter season. For example, Small said the Michigan Bar Association and the Michigan Education Association both meet at the convention center during the winter months. During the rest of the year, national and international art and culture groups, education-related groups and medical groups hold their meetings in Grand Rapids.

However, he said Experience Grand Rapids also markets the city to local companies, such as Amway Corporation, Steelcase, SpartanNash, Wolverine Worldwide, Consumers Energy and Gordon Food Service. Each of these companies has held at least one meeting in Grand Rapids in the last 19 months.

Another local company, S. Abraham & Sons Inc., a local wholesale grocery distributor, hosted a meeting in Grand Rapids in February that brought in 2,100 people and contributed more than $1 million in direct spending, according to Small.

Convention spaces are usually booked three years in advance and although the meetings have been successful here, Small said the biggest challenge is getting representatives to look at the city.

“Our biggest struggle to sell a convention is getting them convinced to look at us in the first place,” Small said. “We have to convince people that we are a true player in the convention market and when they come here to just look at us, it is what we call a site inspection. Once they get in here for a site inspection, the common consensus is they look at (us) and they say, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”

Some of the intriguing factors for hosting in Grand Rapids are the hotels are within walking distance, the entertainment options, the safety of the city and low price options.

Since 20 Monroe Live opened last year, it has hosted 250 events, both private and public. The entertainment venue has hosted more than 25 special events this year.

Although some of the events include weddings and holiday parties, some companies who are holding convention meetings in the city also book the entertainment venue for events. The venue can accommodate up to 2,600 people.

“We’ve hosted a number of client/employee appreciation parties, holiday parties, convention off-site events and, of course, host national artists on a regular basis for ticketed shows,” said Lindsay Lerette, director of sales for Live Nation. “Many convention clients have taken advantage of our space, after the breakouts and expos are done, hosting private concerts, customer receptions, opening and closing ceremonies.”

Small said they compete against cities that are larger than Grand Rapids. Another attraction is the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Although it is not a big airport like Chicago O’Hare International Airport or Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Small said meeting planners are still able to market the city by also promoting the airport.  

“We have gotten more national groups in because our airport has gotten better,” he said. “The airport is a big part of our national sale. We have a very well-run and capable airport for our size. There are more flights, and they just announced another nonstop flight to Miami. We continue to grow, and national convention consumers really take that into consideration.”

While different companies have brought many people into the city for conventions, sports competitions also have brought in people who have supported the city in many ways.

This year, the Meijer State Games of Michigan attracted more than 8,000 athletes from across the country who are playing in over 40 sports at different venues in the city. The event is expected to generate $3.5 million to $4 million for the city before the games end this summer.

Eric Engelbarts, Meijer State Games of Michigan executive director, said one of the largest sports is softball. That includes men’s, co-ed and fast-pitch softball games.

“This summer, we ran upward of 10 different venues and close to 70 different softball teams between all the different divisions we offer,” he said.

Engelbarts said Huff Park was the main venue, with games also played at Plaster Creek Park, Alpine Estates Park and Walker Recreation Department. About 850 to 1,000 softball athletes from across the country participated in the softball competitions in June, he said.

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