Experience GR keeps eye on future


Since 2009, Experience GR has hosted nearly 2,600 groups, and about 700 of them were national meetings. So far this year, more than 260 groups have come through Grand Raids. Courtesy Experience GR

If you need short-term gratification in order to thrive at work, don’t go into destination marketing.

Experience Grand Rapids exists to promote the area to tourists of all kinds — individuals, parties and group meetings of all sizes — and much of the staff’s work takes months or even years to pay off.

Experience GR, Kent County’s designated marketing arm, has a staff of five people dedicated to attracting local, state, national and international conventions to the meeting spaces downtown with the goal of selling blocks of hotel rooms. The 5% lodging tax is where Experience GR gets its funding.

Conventions can be goldmines for economic impact. The recent Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese Convention brought 2,300 people from throughout the world who booked 2,755 hotel room nights and created an economic impact of $5 million.

Last year’s National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association convention brought 3,200 people to Grand Rapids and made a $3.8 million impact. The Michigan Reading Association brought 3,500 people earlier this year and made a $2.3 million impact.

It can take years of work to book national conventions for some groups, said Doug Small, Experience GR president and CEO. For some of the large national groups, it can take multiple proposals before finally landing a booking. It took 15 years to book the National Sheriffs' Association, which will take place in 2023 and bring 4,000 people to Grand Rapids.

During her time at Experience GR, Director of Sales Mary Manier said the number of conferences Grand Rapids can host has grown, and the number of national conventions hosted locally has “definitely grown.”

This is the 10th consecutive year of growth, based on hotel rooms sold.

Since 2009, Experience GR has hosted nearly 2,600 groups, and about 700 of them were national meetings. In 2009, the organization hosted 172 groups. In 2018, that number was 288. So far this year, it has exceeded 260.

Whether bringing a couple hundred people or a few thousand, Grand Rapids hosts conventions for pretty much everyone. 

“I've been doing this for 37 years, and there are conferences for everything,” Manier said.

A horror writers convention was in town earlier this year. Experience GR staff recently were exploring accommodations for a potential jugglers convention, Manier said.

A few other organizations that recently have held conventions in Grand Rapids include Wild Birds Unlimited, Snow & Ice Management Association, American Guild of Organists, Dairy Farmers of America, Michigan Optometric Association, Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, Police Officers Association of Michigan and Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association.

The booking process

Many of these bookings begin with connections made at one of about 80 trade shows and events Experience GR staff attends throughout the country each year, Small said.

Manier said each person on the team travels at least once to a few times a month to spread the word about Grand Rapids, promoting the area as a destination for beer in particular, as well as art, coffee, outdoor recreation and more.

Experience GR’s trade show booth is set up as a bar, and staff serves beer to event planners and other attendees as they learn about the area. Representatives from Founders Brewing Company or Ferris Coffee & Nut sometimes join them to help promote Beer City or the city’s many coffee shops.

Experience GR also has an employee based in Washington, D.C., as do a lot of other bureaus, because it is a hub for many national associations.

Locally, sales staff host personalized tours for representatives of groups considering booking an event in Grand Rapids.

When a group’s representatives tour Grand Rapids, they’re often comparing it to two or three other cities, Manier said, so it’s Experience GR’s job to learn about what groups need and to help make whatever accommodations are possible.

Manier and representatives of DeVos Performance Hall and the Amway Grand Plaza recently toured three event planners representing Harmony Inc., a Providence, Rhode Island-based organization of women barbershop-style a cappella singers.

The group is considering the venues to host its annual singing competition in 2023. The convention would bring nearly 1,000 people who would purchase about 1,900 hotel room nights.

Experience GR staff gave them a tour of the sites and downtown, paid for their hotel stays and treated them to breakfast at Rendezvous, lunch at Harmony Hall, a private suite at a concert and more.

Three times a year, Experience GR invites a group of about 10 people, each representing an organization, for a 27 Hour Experience. The tour guides show them the event spaces and some of the main attractions, like the Downtown Market and Frederik Meijer Gardens.

Small said about half of the national and international groups booked come as a result of promotion by group members who also are local residents.

If an association has a West Michigan chapter or resident, Experience GR works with that person to promote Grand Rapids as an option for the group’s next convention. Experience GR’s Bring It To GR program recognizes these residents as Hometown Champs when their promotion leads to a booking.

Having an insider promote the local market often makes the group more likely to listen and consider Grand Rapids as an option, Manier said. 

The Bring It To GR program has been especially effective in recent years and is on pace to bring 8,500 visitors to the region and make a $15 million impact this year alone.

The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese Convention was booked with the help of several local residents, including Alan Abraham.

Allmon Forrester, director of facilities at John Ball Zoo, helped book the Aquarium & Zoo Facilities Association’s 2016 convention.

When working in 2014 to plan the organization’s national convention two years later, Forrester said he cold called Experience GR with some questions. The staff put together a few proposals, which then allowed Forrester to pitch Grand Rapids to the association.

“They made it very easy for me to keep moving forward,” Forrester said.

After helping solidify the conference venues and contract, he said staff also provided resources and contacts for busing and other conference details.

Forrester said the association has held conferences in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City and other larger cities.

“Grand Rapids definitely held its own,” Forrester said. “In a lot of ways, I think they'd rather go to a town like ours, which is very clean, fresh, not super huge, but has all the things you need right downtown. People were definitely blown away by the experience they had.”

Even if a group books independently, Experience GR staff will help navigate options for how attendees can spend their time when they’re here, Manier said.

Marketing Grand Rapids

Experience GR will even assist people with planning activities for wedding parties, family reunions, military reunions, art tours or anything else, as long as they plan to book hotel rooms.

Small said conventions and business travelers fill the rooms during the week, but it’s leisure travelers who fill the rooms on weekends.

“That's how occupancy has grown so much because we've got more leisure travelers coming here,” Small said.

Many Chicago residents, for example, travel to Grand Rapids on the weekend to escape to a slower environment that still has urban amenities, Small said.

“The people in Chicago who want to just come over for a weekend — we work very hard in that arena,” Small said.

Experience GR has 32 employees on staff, and many of them focus on marketing the region to people in general. Small said staff posts content online almost 24/7.

While the “personality” of Grand Rapids is increasingly attracting people for a specific reason, Small said the majority of individual tourists come to visit friends and family.

“But I'm willing to guess that they're here because it's a cool city, and that's what we're promoting,” he said.

“Grand Rapids has become a destination.”

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