GRAND RAPIDS — Events are planned to slowly return to Grand Rapids’ downtown venues with ramped up safety guidelines, starting with crowdless Grand Rapids Griffins games and Grand Rapids Symphony performances.
A concert in mid-March 2020 was the last event held at Van Andel Arena before the COVID-19 stay-home order. This year, on Feb. 5, the Grand Rapids Griffins are slated to start their 2020-2021 American Hockey League season. The season will initially start without fans in the arena, but the Griffins are assessing the cost-benefit analysis of whether fans could attend games in the future or under the Van Andel Arena’s current capacity restriction from the state of no more than 250 people, said Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager of DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.
“We continue to move forward aggressively, and look at how we can take advantage of what few events we have,” MacKeigan said during a Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority operations committee meeting on Friday. “This is normally a ramping up time in normal years, and we’re seeing that some this year as well.”
As activity ramps up, attendees to any in-person events will notice different safety procedures and safety protocols at events. ASM Global — the company that manages DeVos Place convention center, DeVos Performance Hall and Van Andel Arena — has deployed its VenueShield program of cleaning protocols and safety procedures at its locations.
The reopening program will likely be used as a permanent part of operating procedures moving forward, said Todd Johnson, director of operations and security at DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.
“It has been a great benefit as a learning tool and all the resources ASM has gathered and has access to in order to get the equipment we need and how to train folks. It will be beneficial in the long run,” Johnson said.
The $2 million the CAA received in CARES Act funding has gone toward getting venues ready to reopen, including installing a new air filtration system at the arena that helps satisfy AHL requirements, MacKeigan said.
The beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has spurred some renewed interest from meeting planners, Mary Manier, vice president of sales and services at Experience Grand Rapids, said during the CAA meeting. This month Manier said she had 38 meeting planners attend a virtual tour of the convention center.
Manier expects that at the end of the second quarter or early in the third quarter meeting planners will start to release requests for proposals and information about what they plan to do in 2021.
“What we’re continuing to learn from meeting planners is as the vaccine rolls out, they are more optimistic,” she said.
There have been recent “signs of encouragement,” and inquiries about rescheduling events at downtown venues as well, MacKeigan said.
Having hockey games back at Van Andel and venues across the country mark the beginning of events returning and getting venues reopened, he said.
“They will get these venues and practices in place safely and push the level of attendance that’s allowed,” MacKeigan said.
Events like Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Harlem Globetrotters games will likely be the next type of events to return, and could make a show work if restrictions were as low as 30 percent crowd capacity, MacKeigan said. It does not make sense for major artists to tour right now, but if there is interest from smaller, local artists in doing a show, “We can do it tomorrow,” MacKeigan said.
“At the end of the calendar year I think we’ll see some of the events that were postponed and rescheduled actually occur, but there would have to be at least two-thirds or full capacity,” MacKeigan said.
Staffing levels at the downtown venues is at 30 percent of where they were about a year ago, and will stay as it is currently with the symphony shows and hockey games, MacKeigan reported to the committee. They expect to bring back and hire a significant amount of staff in the third quarter of 2021, he said.
“Once we get a set date of when we see more activity happening in the buildings we’ll do a four- to six-week ramp up (of staffing levels),” MacKeigan said.