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Thursday, 19 August 2010 08:58

Open for business: GR/Kent County CVB aims for inclusion with multicultural initiatives

Written by  Lisa Mackinder
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Richard Ortega, Joyce Flowers and Kemal Hamulic are working as part of the multicultural advisory council to help the organization better understand and engage with the community’s diverse ethnic populations. Richard Ortega, Joyce Flowers and Kemal Hamulic are working as part of the multicultural advisory council to help the organization better understand and engage with the community’s diverse ethnic populations. PHOTO: Seth Thompson

By encouraging a dialogue about multicultural inclusion, the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to tell the world the city is “open” for business for all community groups.

Over the next three years, the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Multicultural Advisory Council (MAC) will address objectives of its diversity initiatives, which include engaging the local community in becoming an inclusive destination, increasing funding for diversity initiatives, bringing multicultural meetings and visitors to the Grand Rapids area and building a national image of Grand Rapids being an inclusive city.

If all that happens, a welcome byproduct would be a more diverse downtown business community.

“We know that diversity is a key component to growth and economic development for Kent County and all West Michigan communities,” said Joyce Flowers, Detroit-based national sales director for Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau and member of MAC and the Multicultural Conventions Team.

The council has had some successes already. Its largest booking came last year when the CVB announced that Grand Rapids would host the 2014 annual conference of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). The conference, which attracts up to 4,000 people, is expected to have a local economic impact of $3.8 million and to fill about 5,000 hotel rooms.

According to Flowers, the council came into existence to ensure inclusion of all groups. Secondly, being in the tourism business, the CVB wanted to increase tourism and occupancy of hotels in all of Kent County. Chaired by a member of the CVB board of directors, MAC represents the diverse cultures within the community. The CVB diversity team nominates individuals to serve on MAC and CVB leadership elects those persons for two-year terms.

Richard Ortega, president and co-owner of Alternative Mechanical in Grand Rapids and a MAC representative, likes the effort because it embodies a multitude of cultures that comprise the region and give it its unique character.

“The scope of the CVB is to work together to learn of as many cultural events and organizations that host conventions, events and national and local gatherings,” Ortega told M&C. “We identify and share information such as Hispanic events, Bosnian, African American, Native American, Asian and others to enrich the diverse and inclusive West Michigan community.”

Kemal Hamulic, a native Bosnian, said the advisory council’s goal is to help tell the story that Grand Rapids really is more progressive than it was in the past. The group isn’t focused on giving groups special treatment, but rather on helping spread the word that the region is more diverse than its Dutch conservative roots might suggest.


Kemal Hamulic, a member of MAC, native Bosnian and executive at Sweet Express LLC, can testify to the city’s transformation since he first came to Grand Rapids in 1997. His hope with the council is to encourage even more change.

“The city has become more open, more diverse and more progressive,” Hamulic told M&C. “Unfortunately, there are many people who still view Grand Rapids as a West Michigan, white, Dutch conservative town where you could not find too many activities that catered to ethnic minorities. What is different here in Grand Rapids from let’s say San Francisco is the fact that everybody knows about San Francisco’s diversity population, whereas in Grand Rapids, you have to be interested in finding activities, restaurants and organizations promoting diversity in order to recognize this city’s commitment to minorities.”

According to Flowers, the council tries to solicit individuals currently involved in diversity programs in their business or those with past experience. She said these individuals come from a variety of places – like corporations, community organizations or municipalities.

Flowers indicated that MAC would aid in the advancement of inclusion of diverse groups through seven core strategies. Research represents the first, with Flowers saying that will help “to gain a greater understanding of how to target the multicultural tourism market.”

MAC will also focus on collaboration, such as working with community organizations to help support their efforts and inclusion efforts; undertaking marketing initiatives that will help attract multicultural groups; hosting diversity and cultural workshops; developing funding and sponsorship methods; and networking.

Another core strategy includes development of a Multicultural Conventions Team, which Flowers said was designed to specifically go out and attract multicultural conventions. The team is made up of the CVB, SMG – specializing in venue management, marketing and development – and hotels, like the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and the Grand Rapids JW Marriott.
“We work with them all the time, so it’s a natural partnership,” said Flowers of the hotels.

Flowers said bringing multicultural meetings and conventions to the Grand Rapids area will be a joint effort. The Multicultural Conventions Team will seek out multicultural events and specifically target national multicultural groups. The team’s first mission happens in September by hosting a multicultural national meeting planners reception in Washington D.C., where most multicultural meeting planners are based. By meeting in an area with a heavy concentration of multicultural groups, Flowers said they hope to greet these planners and arrange times for a site visit to Grand Rapids.

“The first step is coming before them, then we can follow up and do our sales pitch,” she said. “Before we can bid we have to have a dedicated local host group that will agree to bid on that national convention.”

Flowers said it is also important to engage the local community in becoming an inclusive destination. For instance, local commitment plays a big factor in bidding for a large national convention.

“I believe that supporting those organizations and individuals who promote diversity would be the best course of action,” Hamulic stated. “Also, changing people’s attitudes and explaining that ‘diversity’ is not a dirty word would help knock down barriers to better integration and cooperation among various ethnic groups.”

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