Athriving business climate and renewed interest in communities across West Michigan have sparked increased demand for event space throughout the region.
In Grand Rapids alone, more than 140 event spaces dot the landscape, according to data from Experience Grand Rapids, the local convention and visitors bureau. The facilities range from traditional venues like the Amway Grand Hotel and chic urban spaces like Studio D2D or The Goei Center to intimate settings at former restaurants that have been converted to host events.
“It’s growing very fast,” said Tim Nelson, the director of convention services at Experience Grand Rapids. “We have a lot of new event spaces recently opened and more opening.”
Among the recent entrants is a second space at Studio D2D at 401 Hall Street SW, which added its City View venue in December 2016 to complement its Loft setting. According to owner Dan DeWard, the growth of firm’s business drove the need to develop the additional space.
“With the volume of referral business we receive from our previous clients and guests who have attended our events, the two venues work very well,” DeWard said. “Being located in the same Grand Rapids historical building but far enough apart that the two parties don’t overlap while events are going on is perfect.
“Plus, many repeat clients like to work with us on multiple events, so having the two venues provides an opportunity for repeat clients to mix it up while at the same time receiving our high level of planning and service.”
DeWard and wife Andrea DeWard have been in the wedding and events business for more than 20 years. Their business offers many lines of service to clients, including a photo studio, floral/decor studio and tuxedo services, to name a few.
“It allows us to streamline the process for our clients and provide them a good price for any additional services needed,” DeWard said.
The ability to offer a range of services under one roof also has paid dividends for Noto’s Old World Italian Dining on 28th Street SE in Cascade Township. According to co-owner Joann Noto, the company added on 13 years ago to allow it to host more corporate events, family events, reunions, weddings and holiday parties. Today, the facility boasts more than 42,000 square feet that can be used for events of all sizes, she said. The main floor of the restaurant can be reserved for 700 people, an upstairs area can seat 250 people, and a wine cellar has capacity for another 110 people.
“We are very lucky about our location — having everything under one roof makes it a lot easier,” Noto said. “It gives people a lot of flexibility. Occasionally, we close down the restaurant for banquet space. Depending on the event, we have done multiple levels. … It can work really well for those larger groups.”
Noto also credits ample free parking, the 35 nearby hotels and the business’ proximity to the Gerald R. Ford International Airport as key factors clients have cited in selecting the facility for events.
BECOMING A DESTINATION
With events like ArtPrize and the State Games of America, coupled with the city’s vibrant beer and food scene, Grand Rapids has become an ideal spot to host corporate events, Jeff Hainer, senior research analyst at commercial brokerage firm Colliers International, wrote in an email to MiBiz.
“As Grand Rapids continues to accumulate accolades, we are beginning to gain exposure as more than just a middle-market city,” Hainer said. “While size-wise we are still middle-market, we are definitely well in advance of many of our peers in terms of entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and progressive thinking government officials and business leaders.”
As Grand Rapids becomes a destination city, Hainer said, “event space is needed.”
“People are coming here to have events; so companies dedicating real estate specifically for events makes sense,” he wrote. “It is happening. But it’s because of the demand for it that we have created.”
Hainer cited Waldron Public House, Peppino’s and Brann’s as examples of businesses transitioning to include event spaces or catering. The same is true for the Gilmore Collection-owned Mangiamo, which closed as a restaurant in August to focus more on the events business, according to reports.
As more event space options come online in recent months and years, some in the industry worry the market could be approaching the point of saturation, particularly as restaurateurs seek new opportunities outside of the highly competitive segment.
“Yes, there is a huge demand for space, but downtown Grand Rapids is a little flooded right now with restaurants,” said Kim Lemmen, the director of catering and special events at the Grand Rapids-based Gilmore Catering, a part of the Gilmore Collection. “A lot of companies are going in this direction because restaurants have so much competition. There is so much competition downtown, so (restaurants) go into catering and event spaces.”
If a restaurant or hotel has a space big enough for events, Noto said it makes economic sense for them to consider marketing their facility.
“I think they all have a need for something,” Noto said. “Everybody wants to do it. We are seeing a lot of pop-up spaces — like pop-up barn weddings. Those maybe are more trendy and may go away. When you have a location you can do everything in, it helps. We do all of our food here — one person can take care of everything. It’s different with other spaces that have separate (services).”
Nelson at Experience Grand Rapids said holding events also provides restaurant owners another way to connect with new customers.
“For restaurants and breweries, events are often a great way to get people into their business for the first time,” he said.
“I am sure there is a saturation point, but I don’t know where that is,” Nelson added. “I think a lot of this demand of event space is this fuel for Grand Rapids. We have a lot more groups coming downtown, creating additional downtown revenue, not just for event spaces but for all spaces downtown. Grand Rapids is becoming known for food and beer, which are popular and lend themselves to events.”
ADDRESSING A NEED
The trend toward creating more event space has even pushed well beyond the Grand Rapids metro area.
In Sawyer, Mich., about 15 miles south of St. Joseph, the owners of the Clean Plate Club — who also own the adjacent Greenbush Brewing Co. — opted to convert the restaurant into an event space after a year and a half in operation.
Greenbush founder and CEO Scott Sullivan said the company opted to make the change at the request of customers and out of a desire to alleviate the swings of operating a business in a seasonal tourist town.
“In our case, it’s a couple of things,” he told MiBiz of the decision. “We were getting so many requests for events and catering. In the summertime, (business is) fine, but in the off season, it dies. And there definitely is a huge demand for the space with the amount of people who travel to West Michigan.”
The 1,800-square-foot Clean Plate Club, which seats 80 people inside and an additional 30 people outside, now focuses on corporate and special events, catering and rehearsal dinners. Although it’s in the early stages of transition, the company already has bookings into next year for the event space, Sullivan said.
“We have something every week, and we want to build it into something more,” he said. “It helps when everything is done in-house.”
As more bars and restaurants and even retail stores like high-end fashion boutique A.K. Rikk’s open their business model to hosting corporate events, it’s offering event planners more options when seeking out unique experiences for their clients, according to Nelson at Experience Grand Rapids.
“People are looking for more than a chicken dinner in a banquet room. Beer flights with locally sourced food pairings set in a brewery are more appealing,” he said. “I think we are seeing a lot more demand for non-traditional event spaces. There was a time when banquet rooms were the norm. We are not getting those calls now. People are expanding their view of what an event space is.
“They want to do more unique spaces … and a lot of people are adding spaces.”