GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Sports Commission took measures to create a safer work environment at its office, which was newly opened in November of last year before the springtime COVID-19 pandemic sent staff home to work remotely.
The organization currently does not allow pop-in guests — those that do visit are subject to a health questionnaire and a temperature check — and the team has created a flow to the office to maintain proper social distancing.
Now, they just have to figure out how to actually do their work.
“We’re focused on (making it safe to work at the office), but how do we then do what we’re supposed to do, which is promote sports tourism and have activities?” said President Mike Guswiler.
For a nonprofit tasked with attracting and promoting sports tourism to the area and driving business to local hotels, the West Michigan Sports Commission has seen major disruptions during the months-long COVID-19 pandemic.
A once-robust schedule of youth and amateur sports from a local, statewide and regional scope has been ravaged. Now, Guswiler and his team find themselves mostly managing cancellations, trying to shift around the schedule to make many of the events work, whether that’s in the fall or into 2021.
Still, many events have proven to be unsalvageable. Guswiler said that, to date, the commission has had 51 cancellations this year — events that are completely lost.
“Some of those were assisted events, some we were partnered with and we had control over,” Guswiler said of the cancellations. “But, it’s 51 canceled events that we just couldn’t do anything about. That amounts to over 150,000 event attendees that would have participated and nearly 30,000 room nights, which our hotels desperately need.
“We always associate a visitor spend based on the number of people that would come in and we use industry figures. It amounts to over $45 million that was lost in spending from these events not happening. That’s been tough to swallow.”
Guswiler said that part of the reason he’s optimistic that action will ramp up quickly is because amateur and youth sports are resilient, plus families and kids are itching to get out and compete. Even during a pandemic, when families might be skittish to travel long distances, WMSC events are accessible.
“Most of this work we are doing has drivability,” Guswiler said. “People drive over from Detroit metro and from our surrounding states. People will start to move in when we get the green light. We saw that with what we were able to do under the current guidance, and we’ve heard some hotels have had some impact from that (but) it’s not nearly enough right now. Where we should be at is 70 or 80 percent occupancy on some of these weekends — an average occupancy certainly in the 60s. We’re still down in the teens or just slightly better.
“It’s been a big hit. We’re hoping to come out of it sooner or later.”
Experience Grand Rapids is a close partner with WMSC in attracting tourism and convention spending into the area.
Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, credited the Sports Commission as playing a vital role in helping bring record hotel revenue to Grand Rapids in the past.
“The traditional convention and meeting groups that we tend to get involved with, most of the time — not always — is midweek business that tends to fill … hotels or convention centers,” Small said. “What Mike brings in helps fill a void. It helps fill weekends, especially during the summer and fall periods, and most of his sports groups use the suburban, select service hotels that really could use that boost of business, especially on weekends. It’s been the perfect scenario for us.”
Sports begin to stir
The West Michigan Sports Commission has a few different arms to its business model, and one of the segments is starting to see some activity.
The commission operates the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford, an 80-acre baseball and softball complex with eight total fields that has seen some cancellations but is poised to host events this month that comply with health guidelines.
Some of the regular organizations the complex hosts include Game Day USA, USSSA, Blue Chip Softball and VetSports.
Guswiler and his team had hoped to open the complex in early to mid June, but were unable to do so. The organization saw nine canceled tournaments in total.
Now, the WMSC is installing measures to host its remaining events in a safe manner.
Parking fees, facility rental and concessions are the primary revenue centers for the Art Van Sports Complex.
“To some extent, we want people up there and buying snacks and candy, but we want them doing it smart and safe,” Guswiler said.
The West Michigan Sports Commission also operates a separate nonprofit called the Michigan Sports Alliance, which was established in 2016 in order to operate Meijer State Games of Michigan’s Winter and Summer Games.
The Meijer State Games has been another high-profile event that attracts athletes from all over the state and serves as an economic driver for the local area.
This year, the Games will forge ahead, but in a greatly pared-down fashion.
Executive Director Eric Engelbarts and his team hand-picked sports in which athletes could easily adhere to health guidelines, as well as replaced some of the sports with virtual competitions that have been met with mixed reception.
It would have been the 11th year of the Meijer State Summer Games, and Engelbarts said he was pleased to host them in any form.
“Overall, it’s one of those things that people have not been able to get out and go anywhere, so the fact that the event is up and running, they’re super excited to be out and see other people,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement out there.”
Registration fees and sponsorships drive the business model for the Games. Registration fees fell flat this year with most of the sports being canceled but Engelbarts pointed to the strong partnerships with long-time sponsors as an anchor for the organization during this rough patch.
They include title sponsor Meijer Inc., in addition to companies like Metro Health and Lake Michigan Credit Union.
“A lot of them have been with us for five or 10 years,” Engelbarts said. “Meijer has been with us from the beginning. Their support for the event has not wavered because of this.”
While sports tourism like many other industries has slowed down to a crawl, Guswiler predicted it would lead the charge when the pandemic has subsided.
“I think it’s going to be one of the first generators of tourism that comes back and gets what we call heads in beds,” he said. “That encourages me and encourages my team to keep working and looking at opportunities that are out there.”