A recent panel of leaders said fostering a safe, accessible and eco-friendly downtown should be top priority if Grand Rapids wants to grow its convention revenue.
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum at its December meeting tackled the topic “Creating a Sustainable Events Culture” in an hourlong discussion at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss explained how the city and many stakeholders are working together to foster a culture of sustainability to make Grand Rapids a destination city; Mike Donnelly, general manager of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, highlighted sustainability efforts at Grand Rapids hotels and event facilities; and Adam London, health officer at the Kent County Health Department, shared how stakeholder engagement helped bring a conference to Grand Rapids.
Nichole Steele, national sales manager for Experience Grand Rapids, highlighted the organization’s work pitching the city to associations looking for convention destinations. She also moderated the panel discussion featuring Bliss, Donnelly and London.
London is a board member of the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA). After several consecutive years of losing money on its annual education conferences held in larger cities such as Las Vegas; Washington, D.C.; Orlando, Florida; and Tucson, Arizona, he said the group was looking for somewhere new and walkable to hold its convention, preferably in the Midwest.
“Our members were telling us … they wanted to have the feel and the culture of the community,” London said. “They wanted to see music and street food and museums. They wanted to feel as though they were going someplace special, not just some hotel near an airport.”
The destination also had to be affordable enough to guarantee a return on investment and be an environmentally healthy city, in keeping with NEHA’s mission.
London argued the board — comprised of 15 members from metro areas such as Sacramento, California; Dallas; Boston; and Atlanta — should consider Grand Rapids as opposed to other options such as Indianapolis and Chicago.
He said the opposition was loud and strong at first, and most “no” voters perceived Grand Rapids as a Rust Belt city in decline, or as a blank slate, with nothing specific that sets it apart.
Through sheer determination, London was able to get Grand Rapids into the finals against Chicago and then called on Experience Grand Rapids to seal the deal.
Steele and Tom Bennett, Experience GR’s vice president of sales and services, took the 15 board members on a tour of the city’s restaurants, art museums and other cultural attractions, highlighting its green features along the way.
“By the time we left, it was unanimous; it was 15 to nothing because people saw what type of downtown this was and how much of a great fit it would be for our membership,” London said.
NEHA held its convention here in 2017. Steele said she heard from many members afterward who were wowed and planned to come back for vacation.
“(They) said, you know, I’m coming back, and I’ll bring my family with me now,” Steele said. “I learned about this ArtPrize thing. I learned about the orchards and Lake Michigan, and we’re coming back.”
As mayor for the past three years, Bliss said she has carried forward the “aggressive” approach to city culture and sustainability that her predecessor, Mayor George Heartwell, started.
Recent city initiatives have included a goal adopted in 2011 to increase the urban tree canopy to 40 percent — it’s currently at 34.6 percent — so as to reduce air pollutants, enhance water quality by reducing runoff, decrease flooding potential and save energy through shading buildings; switching to all-LED street lights; and making the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, which in turn will reduce carbon emissions.
She said the city also has worked to improve downtown street design and right-of-way, enhance ADA compliance by adding ramps, and is exploring the feasibility of bike- and scooter-share programs such as those found in larger cities.
Bliss said all of the efforts wouldn’t be possible without public and private sector cooperation, the same mindset that is needed to bring more events, conventions and hospitality revenue to Grand Rapids.
Donnelly has been with the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel for 26 years and said the hotel has set for itself “lofty” sustainability goals to reach a zero-carbon footprint, and during the past 10 years, already has reduced its waste going to landfill by almost 60 percent.
The Amway Grand’s Spurt program alone has reduced the hotel’s waste to landfill by 30 percent using biodegradable, bio-compostable products. The hotel also composts food waste and recycles paper, glass, plastics, Styrofoam, electronics and metal.
The Amway replaced all of its old windows in the 107-year-old portion of the building with new, energy-efficient ones. In March, it is starting a two-and-a-half-yearlong project to replace all of the glass on the 35-year-old tower façade, which Donnelly said will increase the tower’s energy-efficiency “to the tune of double digits.”
“It’s just good business,” Donnelly said of the sustainability program. “It’s a good way to market and sell, but it’s also a responsibility.”
Alison Waske Sutter, sustainability manager for the city of Grand Rapids, said during the Q&A that venues across the city need to think bigger in setting sustainability goals.
“I’ve gone to conferences where they’re located in the city, and the organization made the entire conference zero net carbon,” she said. “That’s the level that we need to get to. If we truly want to hang our hat on having events, and those can be small meetings like this or large-scale conventions, those are the game-changers I think we need to be talking about and thinking about to attract people.”
Steele encouraged local attendees who are part of regional and national associations to get in touch with Experience Grand Rapids like London did.
“Seventy percent of the national conventions that we bring here to the city are because of local contacts within Michigan or Grand Rapids,” she said. “Seventy percent of the national meetings that come here are because of local people who have supported it, like Adam.”