That impact is particularly being felt by hospitality businesses in West Michigan.
Across the region, convention and visitors bureaus continue to see a rebound from lows of 2008 and 2009 as both Grand Rapids and Holland have experienced significant increases in occupancy rates over last year.
According to Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, this rebound is largely due to strategic marketing and good summer weather for meetings and tourism.
“We’re seeing a lot of people coming in from areas we target,” said Laukitis. “We’re going to be doing a full-court press for fall and winter.”
According to Laukitis, occupancy numbers for Holland were 75 percent in June and 85 percent in July, both 10 percent higher than the previous year. She attributes these high numbers to the hot summer weather driving travelers out of the cities and drought-stricken areas.
“Lake Michigan’s water has been incredibly warm and crystal clear this year,” Laukitis said.
Adding to the overall activity level, the Holland area hosted a healthy number of weddings, especially outdoor weddings — again thanks to the favorable summer weather.
Laukitis also credits strategically placed advertising campaigns with attracting travelers coming from both the south and east. The CVB has purchased a billboard south of South Haven to target travelers coming from Illinois and another billboard between Lansing and Detroit to attract travelers heading west from Detroit and Ohio.
Throw Pure Michigan radio ads for Holland into the mix, and the result is “a nice, big, positive tourism season and I think that goes for everyone along the lakeshore,” said Laukitis. “We’re hoping that the trend continues.”
Holland has lined up a number of events for the next year, including the NCAA Division III volleyball national championships at Hope College’s DeVos Fieldhouse, the city’s largest athletics complex. Hope College has consistently been able to draw high-level athletics competitions as well as summer sports clinics for high school athletes — all events that boost the local economy.
Similarly, Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, sees a significant uptick in occupancy rates and meetings numbers over the past year. Year-to-date occupancy numbers for Grand Rapids are 2.6 percentage points higher this year than in 2011: 60.8 percent in 2012 versus 58.2 percent a year ago. Hotel occupancy rates in Grand Rapids are also on pace to outstrip national occupancy averages for the third year in a row, judging by a report from Smith Travel Research.
Small said the growth is largely due to high-profile conferences and conventions held in Grand Rapids’ many meeting spaces, such as the 162,000-square-foot DeVos Place convention center and the downtown Amway Hotel Corporation properties including the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and JW Marriott.
“In order to get that kind of occupancy number, you need to have a consistent base of large meetings, as well as the transient tourists and visitors,” said Small.
These large downtown meetings help outlying hotels and meeting spaces, Small explained, because as downtown hotels fill up and spaces are rented, smaller meetings are pushed to other locations further out in Kent County.
“It’s proven that if in July we bring in a large number of group meetings and tourists in downtown, then compression takes over for the outlying hotels, and they fill up as well,” said Small.
Some of the large meetings brought to downtown earlier in the year include the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies conference in May and the American Quilter’s Society’s Quilt Show and Contest in August, which brought over 15,000 quilters to downtown Grand Rapids. Other large events to come, such as ArtPrize beginning in late September, will continue to drive occupancy rates up and pump revenue into the local economy, he said.
Small said Grand Rapids’ underdog mentality was integral to attracting these large-scale events and meetings when competing against other similarly-sized or larger cities.
“What we always say about Grand Raids is that we fight above our weight class,” said Small. “When we fight with Milwaukee and Cincinnati, we’re kind of the new kid on the block.”
In contrast to both Grand Rapids and Holland’s impressive occupancy numbers, Kalamazoo has been relatively flat, according to Greg Ayers, president of Discover Kalamazoo. The current YTD occupancy rate is 54.4 percent, an increase of only 0.1 percent. This flat trend is at least partially related to the Radisson Plaza Hotel undergoing renovations this year, a project that will wrap up this fall.
“There were some groups we just couldn’t accommodate,” Ayers said.
Still, Ayers said he is optimistic about the coming months. Historically, the summer months are not strong ones for Kalamazoo meeting spaces and hotels, he said. Athletics competitions that the city hosts — including the Kalamazoo Invitational Soccer Showcase and the U.S. Tennis Association championships — buoyed occupancy numbers during the summer.
“We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” said Ayers. “Last year, we had consistent growth over the previous year. We’re feeling good about the future. Some of our busiest months are ahead.”
All three CVB heads saw the importance of using traditional means to encourage groups and companies to hold meetings and conventions in their respective communities. Aside from strategically placed billboards like those used by Holland and Experience Grand Rapids, both Experience Grand Rapids’ Small and Discover Kalamazoo’s Ayers said picking up the phone to talk to people or hopping on a plane to speak to them in person at trade shows has been a significant factor in convincing groups to come to West Michigan.
“We show ourselves at trade shows and find groups that are the right size for our hotel and conference properties,” said Ayers.
“Groups have been signing contracts for the next two to three years before they leave town,” said Small. “It’s no secret and not fancy, but that’s what we have to do.”