Growing Grand Rapids tourism

Travel Michigan and Experience Grand Rapids executive discuss how to draw more people to West Michigan
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Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA downtown skyline in autumn season.

Adobe Stock/Sean Pavone

Back before ArtPrize started in 2009, Dave Lorenz had been telling Grand Rapids stakeholder it needed to do something to attract leisure travelers.

As Travel Michigan’s top executive, Lorenz knew the city needed to expand beyond its business reputation. Now, looking back, Lorenz said there was not a lot of positive reception to those suggestions.

“There is a desire and a need to fill conference space, but that doesn’t mean you should just basically fail to leverage tourism assets well,” Lorenz said. “I believe ArtPrize was the leisure travel catalyst necessary to get it moving to becoming a true leisure designation, not just an airport from which you can drive up north from.”

It’s no question that Grand Rapids’ tourism cache has grown in the past 15 or so years. And tourism is a crucial piece of economic growth, something all residents of a town should remember if they want their town to continue to improve, Lorenz said.

He’s heard plenty of times, “Why is my community spending so much on tourism,” and he’ll just shake his head.

“We need to understand we all benefit,” he said. ‘If not for tourists coming to town for a show, there would be no way the community to afford them. It’s not sustainable to to survive with just the residents. Travel and tourism, it enables the lifestyle.

“It’s selfish not to support it. It’s not forward thinking. If you’re not growing sustainably and bettering the community by diversifying it, you will die as a community.”

Prior to the Pure Michigan campaign kickoff 16 years ago, approximately 60% of tourism in Michigan came from within Michigan. With Pure Michigan, the idea was to retain those travelers, but draw new visitors into the state.

The ratio has now grown to about 50-50, according to Lorenz.

“Every time we bring them in, there’s a chance some of those, and this is proven out, some decide to move here and live here, have businesses here, invest here, kids go to school here, be part of our continuing growth. That was always what we intended with that brand, so that’s happening.”

The travelers from outside the Mitten bring with them export dollars, contributing a net positive for Michigan communities.

Outside of Michigan, a large chunk of the rest of the travelers come from the Great Lakes region, with Canada acting virtually as another state. Lorenz said Travel Michigan has also worked to attract Germanic-speaking markets, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Prior to COVID-19, Lorenz said China was the No. 1 international tourism market coming to Michigan, and he expects it to reach the top again.

So how has Grand Rapids, and Michigan as a whole, pushed to become a desirable tourist destination after there were plenty of negative situations to overcome?

“It’s the old axiom, if you build it, they will come,” Lorenz said. “If they come, they’ll tell their friends and they’ll also come and with that comes future growth and future opportunities.”

ArtPrize helped change the greater perception of West Michigan, a place that art can be found. It pushed helped transition the dusty Furniture City moniker in place of the fresh Beer City nickname. As Lorenz said, people might know they have an office desk, but that does not mean they know where it was made.

Grand Rapids is shifting its industries, too, long after the residential furniture manufacturers left town leaving the office furniture companies and auto parts manufacturers. Organizations like The Right Place have done wonders working to attract a variety of companies to town and bringing local companies downtown.

Experience Grand Rapids CEO Doug Small said a robust tourism offering in a city will also help make a city’s quality of life go up, which in turn helps draw more companies and workers to the region.

Much of the Midwest has come to the same realization as Michigan and Grand Rapids in recent years. The Rust Belt is transitioning beyond the manufacturing mentality that built the region.

“That era of depending on one facet of the economy is over,” Lorenz said. “You can’t continue to expect those auto jobs or whatever will always be there. When we learned that wouldn’t be enough, we knew we needed to concentrate on the three pillars, manufacturing, agriculture and tourism to round out to be a livable and desirable community.”

Small said that the collective realization of Midwestern communities could come from tiredness of getting knocked down and overlooked by the coasts. The idea that “fine” was no longer good enough and these cities wanted to build attractive communities that are engaging and welcoming.

After five years of increasing hotel occupancy back in 2016, Small helped lead a study to determine what could help fuel further tourism growth in Grand Rapids. The No. 1 conclusion was a larger 400-500 key hotel with meeting space connected to DeVos Place. Early work on the project being, but was sidelined by the pandemic, but Small said he is back pushing the idea — noting that the pandemic did not derail the community’s future needs.

“When I moved here there were four downtown hotels, now there are 11 and they’re all well done and good looking,” Small said. “But meeting planners, I don’t care if it was when I started 40 years ago or today, they want the fewest hotels to use at the closest distance.

“While we can host a big convention, it might take six hotels to get a group of 2,500 here, where Columbus can do it in three. The cities we compete with on a convention basis can do less hotels and it puts us at a disadvantage to make sales.”

Another major finding, which Lorenz said he has harped on for years to help make Grand Rapids a better leisure spot, is activating the Grand River waterfront. It was also one of the main findings of the 2016 study. There are now a multitude of projects underway to help restore the river’s rapids and make the waterfront a more attractive place to spend time, including Grand Rapids WhiteWater and Grand Action 2.0’s amphitheater project.

The amphitheater will greatly add to the city’s music scene, an attribute Experience Grand Rapids has recently picked up and began marketing, because of the city’s strong live music offerings, from Van Andel Arena to the Intersection and Founders Brewing to 20 Monroe Live and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Small said there are more than 100 venues in Kent County that offer live music on a weekly basis.

“The concert scene has done a great job of filling hotel rooms,” Small said. “That’s why we’re bullish on the amphitheater and you build that and it’s a bonanza downtown.”

Where do all these potential upgrades put Grand Rapids? Small said he doesn’t like to look at other destinations as aspirational. He said there are two standout cities that could carry similar vibes: Austin and Nashville. Both those cities, however, he said are now often crowded and perhaps grew too fast for their infrastructure to keep up.

“Right now, our goal is to be the premier destination of the Midwest,” Small said. “Grand Rapids has a track record to grow handsomely. We don’t grow for the sake of growth, we grow with strategy and direction; here’s the next piece of the puzzle.

“With some of these components, we’ll be closer to that town that people need to visit.”

As Grand Rapids continues to look toward becoming a town people need to visit, Grand Rapidians play a key part in helping, Lorenz said.

“It’s simply being the great community ambassadors they already are,” he said. “We all have the opportunity to give directions or something as simple as smiling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from international travelers about how friendly people in Michigan are; that’s part of our culture.

“Those little things go a long way to creating a perception of a community that’s worth paying attention to.”

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