‘We can do this safely’: Convention centers hope for higher capacity limit

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In downtown Grand Rapids, DeVos Place is preparing for its first convection in more than a year.

The venue will host the 600-member International Institute of Municipal Clerks starting May 9.

To say the last 13 months have been tough on the convention business would be an understatement.

“We have no convention business now — until next week,” Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, said.

The local convention and visitors bureau chief says Grand Rapids lost 500 conventions and almost $200 million in direct spending during the pandemic.

“If you and I are convention delegates walking the city, we’re dropping about $250 a day between hotel room and food and beverage and other things,” Small said. “We’ve still got convention groups under contract for 2021. They’re just waiting on a date of when we’re going to open.”

On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlined new benchmarks for the loosing of restrictions. Under the plan, conference centers will be allowed to operate at 25% capacity two weeks after 60% of Michigan residents have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. All capacity limits will be lifted two weeks after the 65% mark is reached.

While many businesses were encouraged by the announcement, there are concerns over the time it might take to reach those benchmarks.

“There is at least a target now (which) gives us some hope. It’s a target that quite a ways off. That’s our concern,” Small said.

On Thursday, the same day the governor announced the benchmarks, a coalition of convention bureaus, elected officials, local chambers of commerce and union leaders sent a letter to the governor urging her to allow 50% capacity at convention and meeting venues. Small said measures are already in place to keep the gatherings safe.
 
“The reason we were pushing a little harder is because we’ve been ready,” Small said. “We can do this safely.”

He said that for now, they’ll wait, watch the numbers and work to get to those benchmarks.

“We’re going to take on a different role as a convention and visitors bureau and be using our social media to preach to people to get vaccinated so we can meet that goal and get business back,” Small said.

If vaccination rates struggle to reach the 65% mark for the state to lift all capacity limits, the group will continue its push for the higher capacity.

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