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Sunday, 27 September 2015 19:14

GR’s hospitality industry bustles with record-breaking summer season

Written by  Jill Hinton
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rederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park opened the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden this year, which set new attendance records this summer. rederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park opened the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden this year, which set new attendance records this summer. COURTESY PHOTO

GRAND RAPIDS — As ArtPrize visitors begin streaming into downtown Grand Rapids for the competition’s seventh year, the city’s tourism-based businesses already have plenty of good news to celebrate.

That’s because the greater Grand Rapids area witnessed record levels of visitors this summer, the sixth consecutive year that summer tourism has been on an upward trend in the region, according to Experience Grand Rapids.

Hotel occupancy in July stood at 81.2 percent, the highest rate in history, and was projected to hover between 80.5 percent and 81 percent through August, nearly 13 percent ahead of last year, officials at the convention and visitors bureau told MiBiz.

Additionally, Gerald R. Ford International Airport reported that July 2015 was its single busiest month ever, with 231,138 total passengers. Passenger numbers were up 9.4 percent on a year-over-year basis, breaking an all-time monthly record set earlier in March.

The busy summer has led to a significant uptick in business at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids, said General Manager Brian Behler.

“All of Grand Rapids really has this tourism thing going on,” he said.

Behler pointed specifically to conventions as contributing to summer 2015’s record-breaking numbers, but also said “beer-cations,” “girlfriend getaways,” culinary experiences and family events like weddings and honeymoons have all benefited the hotel’s business.

“My favorite reason for visiting Grand Rapids that I hear from guests is, ‘Just because we deserve a getaway,’” Behler said.

People who come to greater Grand Rapids often talk about how surprised they are by the warmth of the residents, as well as the city’s cleanliness and beauty, said Carol Distel, owner of Live Eventfully LLC, an event planning company that runs guided historical and beer tours in Grand Rapids.

“I hear over and over again, ‘I cannot wait to come back to Grand Rapids and experience the city with my spouse, family or friends,’” Distel said.

The recently opened Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids Charter Township served as one of the main draws for visitors this year, said Janet Korn, the senior vice president of marketing at Experience Grand Rapids.

Meijer Gardens typically breaks attendance records every time it opens a new exhibit, she said.

“It provides a fresh reason to come to Grand Rapids, a fresh reason to take your friends and relatives with you and go check out the Gardens,” Korn said.

David Hooker, President and CEO of Meijer Gardens, told MiBiz the destination had already drawn more than 700,000 visitors through August. In 2014, Meijer Gardens had a total of 625,000 visitors through the month of September.

“We have had a phenomenal year. It’s just been absolutely outstanding,” Hooker said. “In the month of July, we had over 100,000 visitors alone. In August, we had over 90,000 visitors. It’s incredible.”

Hooker notes that the Japanese Garden — and the resulting growth in visitors because of it — wouldn’t have been possible without the philanthropic support of both the Meijer and DeVos families.

He also expects the upward trend for visitors in the region to continue next year.

“I think we’re going to have another great year,” Hooker said of 2016.

Korn agreed, noting that Experience Grand Rapids’ national marketing of the city as a premier travel destination and the Pure Michigan campaign continue to pay off for the region. Another contributor for both tourists and business travelers: West Michigan’s emerging craft beer industry.

“It continues to be a reason for people to travel here,” Korn said. “Every weekend and even during the weeks during the summer, we find lots of people visiting our breweries from out of town.”

As well, business travelers are a key demographic in fueling tourism growth, she said.

“Business is good because it’s good all the way around — our business community is also expanding and growing,” she said, noting that more local corporations are bringing their employees and clients to Grand Rapids from other parts of the country for business events.

To Hooker at Meijer Gardens, the region also offers plenty to draw in people from all over the country, whether to see a concert at the Grand Rapids Symphony or for the region’s renowned medical facilities such as the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital or Van Andel Institute.

“Grand Rapids is so fantastic (in) the way our town, our community has come together to say, ‘We want to create vibrant, dynamic and culturally significant place,’ and we’ve done that,” Hooker said. “For old guys like me who were born in the ’50s, seeing the transformation of our town to what it is today — it’s remarkable.“

In the transformation of Grand Rapids into a popular travel destination, Distel credits the whole community as making a difference.

“Everyone from our mayor to our city commissioners to businesses and individuals have contributed to the growth and success of Grand Rapids, and it shows from the accolades we have received over the years,” said Distel, referring to awards such as Global Trade magazine naming Grand Rapids one of its “Top 10 Emerging Cities in the U.S.” in 2014 and Groupon calling it the “Number 1 Place to Visit in the U.S.” in 2015.

“Our local community is excited to be living and working in Grand Rapids and to experience the revitalization of a city,” Distel said. “We all bring a ton of excitement, and that excitement is contagious to visitors.”

Read 3779 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 11:20

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