Small tells county commissioners they’re going to like the numbers


Experience Grand Rapids is Kent County's destination marketing organization that attracts visitors by “getting the word out about things to do in Grand Rapids.” Photo by Johnny Quirin

When Experience Grand Rapids President Doug Small came before county commissioners last week to update them on how his organization did last year, he immediately got their attention.

“I think you’re going to be pretty pleased with the numbers,” Small said right off the bat.

First came the 2012 convention sales results.

Last year, Small said the destination marketer brought more than 223,000 delegates here. Also last year, another 353 groups were booked that will bring another 217,722 delegates here.

“This is a huge number of folks,” he said.

Small also pointed out that his sales crew, led by Executive Vice President George Helmstead, acted on 611 leads that could lead to 352,868 hotel room nights, and 157 potential clients came here for a visit. “Our mission is to fill hotel rooms,” he said.

Then came the tourism numbers.

Tourists were worth $127 million in hotel room revenue last year — an all-time record. The hotel occupancy rate finished the year at 60.6 percent, up dramatically from the 48.6 percent rate that marked 2009. The average room rate last year was $92.94, well above the $84.73 figure recorded three years earlier.

Small also noted that both the occupancy and room rate figures have risen this year from the record numbers of last year. A little more than halfway through 2013, occupancy was at 62.6 percent and the average charge for a night’s stay was $96.60.

“This year we’re 8.2 percent ahead in room revenue from our record year,” said Small. If that trend continues, total hotel revenue could reach about $138 million by year’s end.

The local economic impact from all of this was $1 billion last year.

Small said there are 70 hotels in Kent County that offer 7,254 rooms, and 24,000 people work in the local hospitality industry. A dozen lodging operations have representatives on the Experience GR board of directors, and Small said the industry is well represented in the organization.

Experience GR Vice President of Marketing Janet Korn told commissioners that destination marketing is a form of storytelling — and the story here is about the local art, food, music and many things families can do together.

She said the story has been told through the Grand Rapids television ad that is part of the Pure Michigan campaign, which aired on 10 national cable channels in June and will do so again on regional outlets next month. One of the ad’s lines is “Grand Rapids, where every day is a work of art.” The return on its investment has resulted in an economic impact of $101.5 million.

“We had nearly 400,000 additional visits because of our television ad,” said Korn.

Virtual visits also are rising. Korn said attracted 837,220 visits last year, up from 473,537 in 2010. Through July of this year, more than 521,000 were recorded.

“My hunch is we’ll be close to a million visits (by year’s end). We’ll see if we can get there,” said Korn.

Korn also said the organization began training hospitality ambassadors this month. The selected recruits will provide customer service to enhance visits made by convention goers and tourists. “To date, we have trained 200 people,” she said.

Experience GR has a budget of $6.7 million this year, with slightly more than $1 million coming from the county. Nearly $5.5 million of that comes from what the organization calls “private investment”; another $230,000 comes from other sources.

As he looked to the future, Small felt the city’s designation as Beer City USA and the Downtown Market on Ionia Avenue SE would continue to bring more traffic to town. He pointed to two other upcoming attractions he felt will draw even more people to the county.

“The Japanese garden at Meijer Gardens is going to be a great addition in 2015,” he said. “The Grand Rapids Whitewater project is going to be a game changer.”

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