The Convention and Visitors Bureau is trying to broaden the area’s reputation to others in the nation and is taking a new route other than sales pitches to accomplish that goal.
But even with the bureau embarking on a different direction, the outcome of its journey remains the same.
“Our mission is quite simple: Our mission is to fill hotel rooms,” said CVB President Doug Small.
To that end, the CVB recently unveiled a new diversity initiative that will be directed by a new group called the Grand Rapids Multicultural Advisory Council. GRMAC has 23 members who will work on a three-year plan to help the local community become more multiculturally minded and more accepting of other races and ethnicities.
“Quite frankly, there is an economic benefit to this,” said Small.
SMG, the firm that manages the convention center and arena, and the downtown hotels have joined the bureau in the effort. The Convention and Arena Authority and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce also are involved. GRMAC’s ultimate objective is to build a national image of Grand Rapids as a multicultural city as a way to help fill those hotel rooms.
“The primary purpose is to bring multicultural events to the city,” said Joyce Flowers, the CVB’s national sales director. “Believe me a lot of cities don’t operate in this fashion.”
Flowers, an African-American who represents the bureau from her Detroit-area office, said the plan is to target multicultural groups and then join those organizations. Flowers also said she was speaking with top officials of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners about holding an upcoming meeting in the city. The coalition is made up of planners for businesses, civil rights group, and church and fraternal organizations. It is holding its annual convention in Toronto this year.
“When people come to visit our city, they leave with a very good impression,” she said. “We know that we do have challenges in this market. But we feel we will achieve a level of success.”
Flowers said the major challenge the bureau faces is that multicultural groups have told her that the city doesn’t promote diversity, and their leaders feel that people of color aren’t welcome here. “It’s the perception and image that we have to work on,” she said. “We’re not there yet. But we do have some things that we can offer them.”
At the same time, Flowers said the CVB has had some success with multicultural groups such as the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers. NOBLE will hold its annual meeting here in July 2014. About 2,000 delegates are expected to attend and book 5,000 room nights, resulting in an estimated economic impact of $3.8 million for the city.
“It’s mostly perception, but that has broken down some. I’ve seen a change,” said Flowers.
“You’re dealing with a perception that is rooted in our city’s history,” Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell told Flowers.
CVB Executive Vice President George Helmstead said GRMAC will debut a new website this summer that will feature information on diversity and the group’s efforts. “There is a lot of opportunity locally and that is where we want to push first,” he said.
“We are at the tipping point here in Grand Rapids. It’s all about business,” said Darius Quinn, a human resources director for Kent County.
The bureau is investing $15,000 into the effort and is looking for financial support from the hospitality industry and community-oriented groups. Smith Travel Research Inc. reported that hotel occupancy in the county was at 47.5 percent for the first quarter of this year.
“I think this is a very impressive plan, not cumbersome but meaningful,” said Amway Grand Plaza Hotel President and CEO Joseph Tomaselli with a smile. “This looks like it’s been prepared by one of the business schools I never attended. It’s a good plan.”