Convention centers across West Michigan are gearing up for business following recent orders from state officials, hoping to return as key drivers of economic activity in communities.
While the pandemic-related shutdowns have caused financial pain for some facilities, reopening at even limited capacities will help signal the return of events more than six months after the pandemic swept Michigan.
“People are going to kind of test it out and see how it goes,” said Bob Lukens, community development director for Muskegon County. “It will be a challenge for some of the facilities, but this industry is very quick to adapt, so I think we’ll be able to get back to meetings on even a limited basis.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on Sept. 25 allowing various entertainment venues, including convention centers, to reopen at 20 percent capacity, or 20 people per 1,000 feet. The Michigan Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion on Oct. 2 that appears to invalidate Whitmer’s order along with dozens of others. On Oct. 5, however, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order that maintains the same mask requirements and limitations on gatherings. Large venues’ capacities are capped at 500 people.
The orders fall short of the 50 percent occupancy levels the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association advocated, but convention facilities are still planning around what’s allowed.
Rich Mackeigan, regional general manager of DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena, will rely particularly on local events as booking ramps up.
“Our opportunities are really at the (DeVos Place) convention center,” MacKeigan said during a recent meeting of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority. “That’s where our teams are working closely and aggressively.
Katie DeWeerd, director of sales for the forthcoming Lakeshore Convention Center in Muskegon, saw renewed interest after the order in bookings at the new convention center, which is expected to open in January in downtown Muskegon.
“We were having a huge uptick of interest and feeling like we were starting to get things booked and setting up site visits, but as soon as the pandemic hit, a lot of the interest halted,” said DeWeerd, who also manages the Shoreline Inn & Conference Center in Muskegon. “Now we are starting to see some interest again.”
A ‘very good sign’
Lukens noted that business meetings, banquets and conventions are a big driver of Muskegon’s local economy during the winter months when summer tourism wanes. While the capacity limits aren’t as high as he’d hoped, reopening at all is a “very good sign,” he said.
The convention center hotels in Muskegon have developed COVID-19 floor plans and worked on how to safely host meetings, DeWeerd said. She agreed that the initial reopening is crucial for getting planners in the mindset of re-booking events.
“We’ve been trying to be more lenient with contracts and letting meeting planners know we’re able to change some of our clauses when they book,” DeWeerd said. “We had some groups with proposals for events saying they now have to move their event to another year now. We’re just trying to work the best we can with groups.”
Since mid-March, between 75-100 events have been canceled or rescheduled at the Holland Civic Center, said Sales and Marketing Manager Jay Allen.
Bringing back events would be welcome news for the civic center, which opened in 2018. After receiving a $719,000 subsidy from the city of Holland, the venue had a $95,000 budget deficit at the end of 2019. The COVID-19 related shutdown was a “big shock to the system” in just its second year of operating, Allen said.
“Our main goal is to get some of our previous clients in doing regular meetings and banquets,” Allen said.
He hopes capacity limits will increase, but the work has already started to showcase the facility for potential events.
“Since (Holland Civic Center) is city-owned we want to make sure we follow safety guidelines to a T,” Allen said. “We have sanitizing machines to help clean a space quickly if we have to switch over to a new meeting in an hour.”
Live entertainment events will likely have a slower return to the civic center, Allen said. The facility’s biggest event space has a 175-person capacity under the restrictions, and less than that in other meeting rooms.
“This order will allow us to host smaller events than we hosted in the past,” Allen said, “but we’re excited to get people in the space again.”