Center Puts City In ‘Major Leagues’

    GRAND RAPIDS — The opening of DeVos Place puts Grand Rapids in the “major leagues” in competing regionally and nationally for convention business.

    DeVos Place provides Grand Rapids a large venue to compete with other mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis for the attention of national convention organizers who are considering the Midwest for a meeting.

    Previously, Grand Rapids wasn’t getting much consideration for national gatherings, said Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau that’s marketing DeVos Place nationally, regionally and statewide as a convention destination.

    “We couldn’t even be at the table with those groups with our old convention center,” Wilson said.

    But now?

    “It’s like we’ve entered the major leagues,” he said. “We’re doing a good job getting Grand Rapids to the table.”

    Even before this week’s opening, DeVos Place has been booked for 91 conventions and large meetings through 2010, a pre-opening rate that exceeds expectations, Wilson said.

    That includes three large gatherings in December — the opening Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo that will draw 7,800 attendees, the Great Lakes Fruit Vegetable & Farm Market Expo, and Gordon Food Services Inc.’s annual employee meeting.

    Many of the meetings and conventions already booked involve organizations and trade associations based in Michigan, where Grand Rapids now is better able to compete for convention business with the likes of Detroit, Lansing and Traverse City.

    “We’re really a destination choice among Michigan meeting planners,” Wilson said. “We’re drawing business that hasn’t been here for a long time or had never been here before.”

    DeVos Place has 25 conventions and meetings booked for 2004 that will attract nearly 50,000 people and create an economic impact of $9.7 million, and 28 events in 2005 with an anticipated attendance of 58,800 and an economic impact of $10.9 million.

    Grand Rapids is also presently on the “short list” and receiving “serious consideration” for an additional 62 meetings and conventions in the years ahead, Wilson said.

    Wilson credits the strong pre-opening activity to an aggressive marketing and promotion campaign that began three years ago, prior to the beginning of construction on DeVos Place.

    The campaign focused on retaining meeting business that was previously booked in the Grand Center, increasing business from organizations within Michigan, and luring more regional and national meetings that tend to last longer and involve more people than state conventions.

    “We’re getting larger groups than ever before,” Wilson said. “This is a case of ‘build it and they will come.’ Conventions don’t just show up. We’ve had to mount an aggressive marketing effort.”

    He anticipates that interest in DeVos Place and bookings will accelerate now that the convention center is open, enabling the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau to showcase the facility to meeting planners during an actual event.

    Wilson estimates that conventions will account for about one-third of activity at DeVos Place. Public shows — such as the annual boat show, home and garden show and auto show — and other gatherings will account for the remaining business.

    “The gaps between conventions will be filled in with all sorts of events and activities. It will be a very busy facility,” he said.

    A 1997 feasibility analysis projected an annual $105 million economic impact for Grand Rapids through the development of a new convention center. That analysis in now in the process of being updated, Wilson said.    

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