With so many distinct locations around the state for meetings and events, even the most desirable destinations have to find creative ways to attract groups and keep them coming back for more. We talked with several of the state’s leading convention and visitors bureaus about their process, the role they play in the economy, what they can do better and more.
Experience Grand Rapids
One popular spot on the west side, which recently won the Best Large CVB in Michigan in the 2018 Michigan Society of Association Executives’ annual Choice Awards, appeals to groups in the furniture industry, the medical field and education conferences, among others, says Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids.
Known for being clean, affordable and safe, the city also boasts meeting infrastructure and four-diamond accommodations at two- and three-diamond prices. With hotels that connect to the convention center and an airport that continues to expand service, Grand Rapids has plenty to offer.
Still, Small says getting brand recognition in a national market means they need to zig when everybody else is zagging.
Monthly meetings with its convention centers and largest hotels let everyone share notes. “It’s a family approach,” says Small. “We converse all the time and open up for ideas. Diversity in a room invites innovation.”
As for their impact on the local economy, he says that not only do they drive people to spend money, but also Grand Rapids wouldn’t have as many attractions without these visitors, “It improves our citizens’ quality of life.”
Over the last decade, Small says the role of his CVB has broadened: “We’re definitely a marketing organization. There is no one out there marketing this market more than us.”
Its reputation for service leads to repeat business. “We go out of our way to impress,” he adds. “We’re still an emerging destination, so the objection is the unknown, but we’re not concerned once they get here.”
Small says the city must address needs like the shortage of hotel workers: “We have to help build a bigger workforce and diversify that workforce.”
When working with other CVBs, his team is happy to share ideas. “We collaborate a lot,” he says. “We all have the same challenges, why not work together?”
For visitors, Brandy McCallum, CTA, convention services manager, says the CVB often acts as a liaison between the meeting planners and the city of Grand Rapids helping them navigate the location and connect with venues. “We also help build attendees and excitement. We want to make it the best experience possible.”
Heidi Schmitt, GMS, CTA, director of state accounts, says that sales and service work together, “Approaching events as a team is extremely helpful for the planners.” Adds McCallum: “We’re all about building relationships.”
That’s what the CVB did with Angel Brewer, director of events for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP). Its annual Student State Conference, now held in Grand Rapids, utilizes DeVos Place and hundreds of rooms at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
“Experience Grand Rapids does a fabulous job. They’re top-notch in everything from sales to service and they’re No. 1 in communication and follow-up. They don’t miss anything,” says Brewer. “They bridge the gap between the customer and the properties like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’ve made my life a lot easier.”
Detroit Metro CVB
In Southeast Michigan, Larry Alexander, president/CEO of the Detroit Metro CVB, says they have a great marketing team and a community that has everything from a major airport to an international riverfront. “We can have meeting planners come and enjoy where they conduct their convention,” he says.
To generate sales, the CVB tries to highlight the new attractions and the positive changes taking place. “We are a seriously viable option to be considered for meetings and conventions,” he says. With so many special entertaining venues, events can showcase something that’s unique to the destination and different from what visitors see in their hometown.
Since some of Detroit’s big sporting events can be eight or nine years out, it’s critical for the CVB to be at the forefront. “We have to be leaders of our industry,” he adds.
Alexander sees his CVB as an economic growth organization: “People spend money on travel, hotels, restaurants, parking and exhibits and bring new dollars to our market.” With the amount of space available at Cobo Center downtown and Suburban Collection Showplace in the suburbs, his biggest challenge is finding a place for people to stay.
Since there are around 6,000 hotel rooms downtown and 40,000 in the metro area, substantial groups might need hotel rooms in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. “Our service team does a tremendous job to provide alternative options to fulfill the region and service the groups while in town.”
Just ask Andrea Mikus, director of events for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in New Hampshire about the FIRST Championship Detroit with more than 40,000 attendees at Cobo Center and Ford Field.
“They were really awesome to work with and they’re very welcoming. They’re really interested in the event and helped us with fundraising and marketing and one of the best media campaigns,” she says.
“It’s always helpful to have local connections. The city really wants to be a partner; it’s not just another event. Larry Alexander was so incredibly helpful and he’s such a great supporter of ours. He was always willing to go above and beyond.”
Unfortunately, Alexander says there are still people who have an old view of Detroit. “We want to tell the true story of what’s happening here. Billions of dollars have been invested or plan to be invested. It’s a different city,” he says.
Staying competitive is about doing what the CVB can and coming to customers to put on the best show. “Our industry is really a bellwether for the economy. Anytime we have a slow down or a recession, the first thing that gets cut is travel and tourism and meetings and conventions,” adds Alexander. “We’re an industry that knows six months before, and we’re the last to come back six months after.”
Greater Lansing CVB
According to Julie Pingston, CDME, CMP, CTA, executive vice president for the Greater Lansing CVB, people don’t always think of the meeting and events industry as a strong economic driver for the community. Tourism and meeting/event-related activities affect 11,000 jobs in the region, bringing in $602 million to the Lansing economy and 4.8 million visitors per year.
To welcome them, Brandie Putnam, CMP, CTA, convention services manager, says the bureaus work with meeting planners to create awareness beforehand via social media and provide signage at the hotel and various attractions during the event. The CVB also can provide resources like a printer or a caterer.
Putnam says they have great relationships with hotels, facilities, airports, parking, parks and recreation, restaurants and more. Although Lansing Center is the primary exhibition hall, there are other options like the Breslin Student Events Center on the Michigan State University campus.
Staying ahead of the game means the CVB already has an event booked for 2026.
Pingston says it’s important that everyone is on the same page. Communication is key along with recognizing clients’ needs and taking small pieces off their plate.
Monthly meetings with their hotel partners include educational activities that let them get to know each other and build relationships. The lack of downtown hotel rooms should change in 2020 with the opening of a new hotel.
Creative efforts might mean partnering with a local community college for more space and adding that personal touch to make sure they’re remembered like customized proposals from the CVB marketing department.
Lansing does compete with other CVBs. But if it starts with a group that another location hosts the following year, the Lansing CVB will share information because that’s beneficial to the client.
Lansing also has received the MSAE Best Large CVB of the Year honor is the past. “We have a fantastic team and our sales and service departments work hand in hand to elevate the meeting planner experience from start to finish,” says Pingston.
The Greater Lansing CVB already made a great impression on Andrea Sundermann, CAE, director of continuing education for the Michigan Dental Association. Its annual convention held in Lansing every three years draws about 4,500 attendees to the Lansing Center, Radisson Hotel, East Lansing Marriott, Kellogg Center and Crowne Plaza (West side).
“The GLCVB staff is fantastic. They really serve as an extension of my staff, helping me with details that otherwise could get overlooked, just due to lack of time. Their ability to recommend venues based on knowledge and feedback of other clients is so helpful. It’s hard to come up with something new for each meeting, but I can always depend on the CVB for great ideas,” she says.
Sundermann also appreciates the bureau’s relationships with venues and the city, particularly the parking department. “They have been instrumental in setting up one-onone meetings with key officials, helping us create a great experience for our members.”
Destination Ann Arbor
In Washtenaw County, Margaret Wyzlic, director of communications and public relations for Destination Ann Arbor, says it has a genuinely welcoming staff that works to draw meetings and events to the area and to ensure visitors’ time there is productive and positive. For some, the bureau has hosted welcome receptions, outdoor block parties and various other activities.
She says the sales staff works tirelessly to inspire meeting planners, newly-engaged couples, conference executives and others and can assist with research and planning, meeting space and rooms, site tours and visits. “We understand that meeting planners work hard to ensure great events for their attendees, and we’re their partners in that effort.”
Tourism and visitor spending is an essential piece of the local economy and the bureau is passionate about the visitor experience. “We offer a Certified Tourism Ambassador program for our local partners to educate their staff members with service training, area history and information, and more,” Wyzlic explains. “We believe these efforts show in the experiences that our visitors have when they come here.”
That was the case for Nathaniel “Nat” Alston, Jr., chairman, national board, former national president, co-founder and lifetime member emeritus for the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources. He has worked with Destination Ann Arbor on events such as the group’s 2018 National Conference at the Marriott at Eagle Crest.
He says the Destination Ann Arbor staff and the warm hospitality are wonderful. “They were great in introducing us to the Ann Arbor–Ypsilanti community, making sure all our needs were met. I would highly recommend that any organization considering Ann Arbor as a place for their conference should contact Destination Ann Arbor. They are great people to work with.”
Whatever the client wants, the Frankenmuth CVB can make happen, whether it’s welcome packets, visitors guide bags or coupon books, says Jamie Furbush, president/CEO.
She explains that the bureau also meets with planners in advance to help them get to know the community for conventions and attractions. Many have cherished memories from family trips, but haven’t seen the special setting from the perspective of an attendee.
Since most people who do business in any town do so after having visited that place, tourism plays a major role in economic development, says Furbush. “People want to do business with places they’ve been to in the past. A lot of meetings and conventions come from someone with that family member, group or planner thinking of Frankenmuth in a different light.”
With only 5,000 residents, the CVB plays a major role in the economy with meetings and conventions that bring business to the community and millions of visitors each year. Leisure guests often return for weddings and corporate events and the CVB works closely with hotels and conference centers, such as the Bavarian Inn Lodge, along with neighboring partners such as the Great Lakes Bay CVB serving Midland, Saginaw and Bay City regions, for additional resources.
“We can look beyond our border through the entire region, which allows us to be more creative,” Furbush says.
The fact that the area is known for its high service standards helps to boosts repeat business. “The folks at the hotels and conference center are so culturally focused on hospitality. It’s just their nature to make sure people have a great experience,” she adds.
Still, people are always looking for something new even when visiting a familiar place, so the bureau tries to keep it fresh with a trip to a unique property, such as a historic farm for a banquet or some pretzel rolling. Other attractions that work well for groups include the Bavarian Belle Riverboat tours and the Frankenmuth Aerial Park for a fun team-building activity.
Today, Furbush says people find the bureau online and make decisions a lot quicker. As for working with other CVBs, she says, “I still love to see it stay in the state of Michigan if we can’t host it. We’re fortunate to have the whole region and our counterparts across the state.”