GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the travel and tourism industry, “devastating” is commonly on the lips of Grand Rapids’ event leaders.
But the people behind Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and other city events and meetings are resolute about recovery.
“I’ve represented five destinations… over my career and I’ve never seen anything like it, like I see here, and that is that spirit of ‘We’ll get through this,’” Doug Small, President and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids said.
It’s a big hill to climb. David Lorenz from the Pure Michigan tourism campaign says nationally, employment in the industry has dropped 35% since the pandemic, higher than any other industry. At the current pace, travel and tourism as a whole is not expected to fully recover until 2025.
GRAND RAPIDS’ ‘DEVASTATING’ ECONOMIC LOSSES
The numbers are also grim in Grand Rapids. Assuming venues do not return to normal operations until September, ASM Global Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan says more than 1,000 events will have been scrapped for Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall since the shutdown started.
Van Andel Arena was the last of four venues nationwide to host a concert with Lauren Daigel’s March 10, 2020 performance, according to Rolling Stone. Since then, the city’s largest events venues have lost 2.25 million guests and a startling amount of revenue — 97.15% for Van Andel Arena and 99.5% for DeVos Place.
“It has been devastating to our industry worldwide and locally,” said MacKeigan.
The losses have rippled across the local economy, which missed out on well over a $100 million impact from the scrapped events at the arena and DeVos Place, according to MacKeigan.
Evette Pittman, special events manager for Grand Rapids, said the outcome for the city “hurts to say aloud,” with 70% fewer public events permitted since the pandemic, leading to a 96% loss of attendance.
People lured to Grand Rapids by city events went from 1.2 million in 2019 to a mere 44,000 in 2020.
“This is truly a devastating loss to our local economy,” Pittman said.
She says lower-income groups were disproportionally affected since events organized by the city were free. Businesses also felt the blow.
“Local events represent jobs for electricians, sign shops, florists, restaurants, caterers, bars, and it brings money into our local economy. Local events build emotional connection and engagement that’s difficult to quantify. When events happen, our city is vibrant, tourists visit and people spend money here,” she explained.
It’s a similar story at Experience Grand Rapids where 406 canceled conventions and group meetings have amounted to $187 million in direct spending lost in the community. Some of those events moved to other states that have at least partially reopened larger meeting facilities.
Experience Grand Rapids President and CEO Doug Small says the lost events meant more than 170,000 missed nights at hotel rooms.
With less hotel tax revenue to fund Experience Grand Rapids, the group permanently cut one-third of its staff.
‘ROARING ’20s’ REVISITED?
But this isn’t the end for Experience Grand Rapids. Small says the organization has rebooked dozens of groups that previously canceled.
“We’re not laying down,” said Small. “We’ve been working as hard, if not harder than before.”
MacKeigan is adopting a positive prediction from Marc Geiger, formally from events agency William Morris Endeavor.
“He equated what we’re going through now to 1918 and the Spanish Flu and the then creation, emergence of the Roaring ’20s. And he thinks, and I am there 100% based on what I’m hearing, that 2022 and beyond are going to provide a decade of the Roaring ’20s,” MacKeigan told members of The Economic Club of Grand Rapids Tuesday.
MacKeigan, whose company oversees activity at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, partly bases the prediction for Grand Rapids on upcoming events.
“The amount of traffic on our calendar with artists and agents holding dates right now is tremendous for 2022. It is absolutely tremendous,” he said.
MacKeigan expects Michigan’s tourism to come back a little faster than its travel industry. “Barring anything unforeseen happening,” he remains hopeful the arena will open indoors at full capacity this October, one month later than LiveNation’s prediction.
“It’s a question I’m asked frequently, probably mostly by my wife, in that on April 29th of last year, I got a mohawk for charity, and that’s the last time I got my hair cut. So, I’ve told my staff I’m not going to get my hair cut until we’re sold out at the arena,” McKeigan said.
Haircuts will likely happen more regularly after that, if his prediction holds true.
“I’m very, very confident that ’22 and for the next five to 10 years, we will be a very busy concert market,” he said.
TRENDS TO STAY
Some athletic groups are already considering and trying new models to bring back fans safely.
MacKeigan pointed to the NBA, which is allowing vaccinated-only sections within arenas, as well as Albany, New York, which is testing out a digital vaccine passport of sorts for admission to professional sports events.
“I’m not saying where it’s going to go, it appears though the price of admission is vaccination. And when we get to herd immunity through the vaccination, that’s when I will see things open up,” MacKeigan said.
Pittman and Small agreed the key to recovery is more shots in arms. DeVos Place is already doing its part to speed up the process by hosting a vaccination clinic, which set a national single-day record Monday by administering 12,000 shots.
All three events leaders say trends created or accelerated by the pandemic could also help Grand Rapids rebound, including support for major redevelopments like the 30-acre riverfront plan unveiled last month by Grand Action 2.0.
Pittman said the city should build on the unprecedented collaboration that brought about the Bridge event series and creation of social zones by creating an arts council.
Both Small and MacKeigan said livestreaming can co-exist with in-person attendance, giving venues another way to grow attendance and revenue while serving those who still want to experience an event.
Small says streaming can also break up event attendance, allowing groups that were too large for Grand Rapids’ venues to consider the city.
“I think there’s opportunity to create new business from this and we’re going to look to do so,” Small said.