Amway co-founder Rich DeVos was a driving force behind transforming the aging Grand Center into a state-of-the-art convention center a decade ago.
Now, his oldest son’s efforts will have significant impact on the success of DeVos Place over the next decade.
Dick DeVos has led a regional effort to improve air carrier service and lower airfares at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Flight costs are an important part of the formula, along with affordable hotel rooms and quality convention space, in drawing trade shows, especially more lucrative national conventions, to Grand Rapids.
“The air service was certainly the thing that was killing us,” said Dick DeVos, after a presentation last week to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids about the efforts of the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan.
He launched and chairs the group, representing employers with 60,000 workers and $67 billion in revenues, to partner with the airport to attract more airlines.
Five years ago, the lack of flights and the cost of air service was the biggest challenge to booking national trade shows and conventions at DeVos Place.
The recent addition of the nation’s top low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines has legitimized the market in the minds of many meeting planners, said Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager for Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place.
The rate differential between flying into Grand Rapids compared to Detroit has dropped to about $36 from $150 in the past few years. Despite the narrowing fare gap, Ford airport is still consider one of the pricier hubs. And the alliance has had its share of setbacks, losing Frontier earlier this year because the low-cost carrier couldn’t compete with Southwest and United.
Lower fares not only help land national convention business, but are key to bringing more people to the trade shows because it is more affordable for companies to send employees.
“We continue to do extremely well with state business and where we are seeing growth opportunity is in regional and national business,” MacKeigan said.
The benefit of the alliance’s efforts is already evident. In the past three years, DeVos Place bookings and Grand Rapids area hotel occupancy have risen to record levels.
The upgrades in air traffic and fares help Grand Rapids compete against cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, said Doug Small, CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, the group charged with marketing the city to trade groups.
While those cities offer bigger convention halls and more hotel rooms, Grand Rapids competes favorably as an overall destination.
“We do not take a backseat to any of them when it comes to facilities,” Small said.
National conventions boost hotel occupancy because visitors tend to tack on extra days for travel.
Small expects the hotel occupancy rate to end the year around 62 percent, which is above the national average. That’s a big jump from five years ago when it was below 50 percent.
Convention center business also provides an important economic base for downtown restaurants, retailers and attractions.
“That convention business is crucial,” said Small. “If we can grow our airport, the sky is the limit.”
Ford Airport is in the midst of an expansion that includes enlarging the Grand Hall to streamline security checks and adding concourse concessions for passenger convenience.
DeVos Place and the airport improvements have been key to changing Grand Rapids’ image from sleepy to vibrant, said Wolverine Worldwide CEO Blake Krueger.
Next week, the Rockford footwear giant will hold its annual fall meeting for hundreds of global distributors at the convention center.
Krueger admits he didn’t think Dick DeVos could make so many changes so quickly to the airport when he agreed to have Wolverine join the alliance.
“I told him I would support it but I thought it would be like moving a mountain or like actually getting agreement in Washington,” said Krueger. “That’s how I viewed the size of the challenge. But, really, Dick DeVos and the alliance have made a difference.”