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GR entertainment and event organizers express optimism after ‘sobering’ 2020

BY Monday, March 29, 2021 02:31pm

GRAND RAPIDS — After an economically grim 2020, Grand Rapids event and entertainment officials say they’re optimistic about pent-up demand, COVID-19 vaccines and a new standard of hybrid in-person and virtual programs.

Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager for ASM Global, which manages multiple downtown venues and the DeVos Place convention space, is “hopeful” that full-capacity events will return to venues like Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Performance Hall by October this year. He also anticipates a groundswell of consumer demand after more than a year of venue closures.

“2022 and beyond are going to provide a decade of the roaring ’20s,” MacKeigan said Monday during a panel hosted by the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. “The traffic on our calendar with artists and agents holding dates is tremendous for 2022.”

MacKeigan was joined on the panel by Evette Pittman, supervisor of the city of Grand Rapids’ Office of Special Events, and Experience Grand Rapids President and CEO Doug Small.

The panelists also expressed optimism about hybrid events, including concerts and large group meetings, that will include a mix of in-person and virtual attendees. MacKeigan cited the Grand Rapids Symphony’s live-streamed concerts at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall in recent months.

“Streaming and hybrid meetings are very real — it was kind of happening already,” MacKeigan said. “It will never kill live entertainment, but it gives organizers another opportunity to sell. We’ve begun to structure at the corporate level how those agreements could come into play so we have the plug and play contractual approach to these.”

Small agreed, noting that it could create opportunities for Grand Rapids venues to host larger events if some of the attendees are virtual.

“There’s an opportunity that we haven’t had before, with groups of 5,000 people that have just been too large for Grand Rapids to host,” Small said. “With hybrid meetings, maybe half would attend. Now we have hundreds of groups that we never had access to.”

Aside from the optimism, though, the panel discussed what Small called “sobering” numbers from 2020. Experience Grand Rapids saw 406 meetings totaling 170,000 hotel room stays canceled, which equates to an estimated $187 million in direct spending to the community. Kent County hotel revenue dropped from $226 million in 2019 to $110 million last year — figures on par with 2010, Small said.

The city of Grand Rapids permitted 70 percent fewer events in 2020 than the year before, leading to a 96-percent drop in event attendance, Pittman said.

ASM Global will have seen more than 1,000 events canceled during the pandemic “presuming there’s no return to normal until September,” MacKeigan said. Van Andel Arena’s revenue dropped 97.1 percent, while DeVos Place’s plummeted 99.5 percent.

“It’s been devastating to our industry worldwide and locally,” MacKeigan said. “However, there are reasons for optimism.”

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