Corporations and associations might not yet be hosting in-person events at the scale they once did, but the state’s top meeting and convention venues are optimistic about their recovery in the coming two years.
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research’s CEIR Total Index, a measure of global convention business performance, was about 22.3 percent lower at the end of 2022 than in 2019 but still showed vast improvement over 2020 and 2021. Those COVID-19 pandemic years saw declines of 98.3 percent and 50 percent from 2019 convention business, respectively, according to a December report from Tradeshow Executive.
The report projects 2023 could continue to be a challenging year for the exhibition industry as a possible recession looms, but a full recovery is expected in 2024.
Still, executives at some of Michigan’s largest convention and meeting venues say they are on the road to recovery. How each of these venues is doing, the executives said, stems from factors such as location, venue size, availability of local labor and ability to fill in the gaps in one category with business from another.
Claude Molinari is president and CEO of Visit Detroit, the convention and visitors bureau that’s funded by room assessments from metro Detroit hotels. He said his group is budgeting for business this year to be about 95 percent of what it was in 2019 based on the projected number of hotel stays.
The trade shows and conventions that Huntington Place and Suburban Collection Showplace host are a big driver of those overnight stays, Molinari said.
While Huntington Place officials did not respond to requests for revenue figures and event numbers, Molinari said the 923,000-square-foot venue finished 2022 well below 2019 revenue levels because the North American International Auto Show did not meet its performance goals with fewer manufacturers participating.
But Molinari sees an opportunity for Huntington Place to lean into and repeat the successes it did have in 2022. These included three conventions that broke profitability records for non-automotive shows: a 3D printing conference called RAPID + TCT hosted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the Automate show by A3 and KubeCon, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation’s annual conference.
“In 2022, coming out of the pandemic, we had the three most profitable (non-auto) shows in the history of the convention center, so there was some real great progress from that standpoint, and then certainly those shows are scheduled to come back (in future years),” he said.
Molinari said attendance at many of the Suburban Collection Showplace events in Novi last year outpaced 2019 numbers, such as the Michigan State Fair, which saw a 26 percent attendance spike over 2019. Similarly, The Battery Show, Foam Expo, Adhesives & Bonding Expo and Ceramics Expo all outpaced 2019 attendance, he said.
“I think they’re only going to grow,” he said. “Certainly, The Battery Show is picking up every square inch of the Suburban Collection Showplace (and) they have to put tents outside to feed people because they do not have enough space to accommodate everything that show brings to the table.”
Molinari said 2023 event numbers at the 392,000-square-foot venue are expected to be on par with 2019.
“They’re coming out of the pandemic strong,” he said.
Experience Grand Rapids reported this week that Kent County logged a total of 481 individual meetings, sporting events and group tours that drew 443,024 attendees to the region in 2022, restoring 92 percent of the number of groups convening in Grand Rapids when compared to 2019.
Doug Small, president and CEO of EXGR, said Grand Rapids’ near-recovery of conventions and meetings is partly attributable to its size and status as an up-and-coming city.
“Mid-size cities like ourselves, and resorts, have sprung back almost to where we were pre-pandemic,” he said. “… We had a ton of momentum built up prior to the pandemic. Grand Rapids was starting to become more recognized, was really starting to move along, and I think even though we went dark for a couple of years, that momentum was easy for us to pick back up and continue.”
At 234,000 square feet, DeVos Place is Kent County’s largest convention center. Rich MacKeigan is the regional general manager for ASM Global Grand Rapids, which manages DeVos Place.
MacKeigan was not available for an interview but said in an email to Crain’s that DeVos Place hosted 98 conventions and meetings in 2022, down from 178 in 2019, and it is projecting it will host 111 in 2023 based on current bookings.
The venue generated about $6.2 million in revenue last year, including from concerts in the venue’s performance hall, which was down about 16 percent from its 2019 revenue of $7.4 million. He projects 2023 revenue will finish just under $7 million, or about 6 percent less than in 2019.
MacKeigan said fiscal year 2023, which ends June 30, will probably be the first typical year following the pandemic.
“We were still dealing with events rescheduling during the first half of FY2022 and saw more ‘normal; business in the second half of that fiscal year,” he said in the email. “Longstanding repeat clients, local and state, really helped to bring us back to a sense of normalcy.”
Small, of EXGR, said that while individual corporate travel might not be driving as many hotel stays as before the pandemic, Grand Rapids is doing well booking state and national professional association conferences and expos. Some of the noteworthy conventions at DeVos Place last year included the American Fisheries Society’s Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting, the U.S. Travel Association’s Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations and Encounter Ministries’ 2022 conference.
Derek Emerson is director of events, conferences and the Haworth Hotel on the campus of Hope College in Holland. Hope has about 300,000 square feet of convention and meeting space spread across the DeVos Fieldhouse, Haworth Hotel, concert halls, theaters and other meeting rooms.
Emerson said it’s difficult to compare 2019 to 2022 because the Haworth Hotel was closed for a major renovation that year and was set to reopen right when the pandemic hit but didn’t. Now that it’s open, the college is seeing more bookings from corporate and association groups than it did in 2019.
Many of the events held on campus are summer camps. For this summer, camp attendance is expected to be about 80 percent of a typical pre-pandemic year. But the conference business is expected to match pre-pandemic levels, Emerson said, thanks to meeting space that went online at the hotel.
“We’re feeling like we’re back on track,” he said. “We’re still seeing some hesitancy from outside groups who are renting spaces. … A lot of them, their budgets really got hurt over COVID, and they may not have the money to rent space. I know some have cut back on the number of events they’re doing just in general, as people are still easing back in, but it hasn’t been a significant decrease.”
Emerson said he expects Hope will generate about $4 million in event revenue this year, surpassing its 2019 event revenue of $3 million, helped by academic and church conference bookings and regular meetings of Haworth Corp. and the Holland-based Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme, just outside Traverse City, books events for many Michigan-based associations in sectors including technology, banking, real estate, education and government. The resort has about 86,500 square feet of meeting space spread across 11 venues.
The venue gets an assist in bookings from having airlift access at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, said Katie Leonard, director of sales.
While Leonard did not disclose revenues, she said that in 2019 the resort booked about 60,000 hotel room nights for a total of 464 groups holding events. In 2022, that number was down to about 50,000 room nights across 349 groups.
So far this year, Grand Traverse Resort has booked 266 groups. Leonard expects the year will close out very close to 2022 numbers. She projects it will book more than 400 groups in 2024 and make a full recovery by 2025.
Leonard said Grand Traverse Resort’s room bookings are hurt when there’s low attendance at events. Attendance is low now partly due to the labor shortage at venues and for customers.
“(For) some of the trade shows and things like that, companies that would send people to be exhibitors, they just don’t have as many employees … to be able to maximize that,” she said.
Fortunately, Leonard said her sales staff uses revenue management systems to help it target areas where it can make up for lost group business. Some of these include social events such as weddings, wine and food tastings, and golf outings.
She said resort ownership renovated all of the meeting spaces during the pandemic to make them more appealing and is in the midst of a $10 million renovation of guest rooms to make them more business friendly. The resort also is working on expanding its outdoor venues to support more events, she said.
The Lansing Center is experiencing the slowest recovery of any convention venue Crain’s interviewed. It recovered just more than 70 percent of its pre-pandemic business last year after having record attendance of 220,000 visitors at 255 events that brought in $6.1 million in operating revenues in 2019.
Its operating revenue for 2022, not including $1.7 million in one-time American Rescue Plan Act grants, was $4.5 million after hosting 180 events that brought in 142,000 people, according to Scott Keith, president and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment & Public Facilities Authority, which manages the Lansing Center.
Keith said it’s been difficult to predict revenues each year since the coronavirus crisis began in early 2020.
“We’re throwing a dart at the dartboard where we think indicators are going to be for our industry. Last year, we projected a 70 percent return, and we are hitting that number this year. We’re actually moving a little bit ahead of 70 percent,” he said.
He said the Lansing Center relies mostly on association business, which has struggled to fully rebound. And the center has never pulled in as many corporate meetings as other cities.
“Some industries have rebounded to where they feel comfortable coming back in person — their budgets are solid, their attendees are good — and then other industries have been a little bit slower. For example, we’ve seen corporate business come back quicker, but we’ve seen education and manufacturing be a little bit slow,” Keith said.
Keith attributes the latter weaknesses partly to staffing shortages. He said the center’s business also has been affected by factors like protests at the state Capitol as well as the 2022 opening of the Heritage Hall visitors center that’s drawn away lobbying association business.
He said youth activities, like plays, sports and dance competitions and cheerleading events, have come back quicker than corporate and association business, so the Lansing Center is leaning into those opportunities to fill in gaps.
For fiscal year 2024, he said the Lansing Center expects to have recovered about 80 percent of its business.