Great Ideas in 
Grand Rapids


Dan Dickson
Published February 02, 2017

Most city planners try not to eliminate the key natural features of their areas. But nearly 200 years ago, business and commercial interests in Grand Rapids, Michigan. began removing the namesake rapids from the Grand River, which flowed through the city’s downtown, to make the river easier to navigate. Now, city leaders are looking to undo that decision. Plans are in the works to restore the rapids to a portion of the river to create new riverfront and recreational opportunities for Michigan’s second-largest city. The investment is expected to be $34 million.

“The river was used for logging back in the days when we were known as Furniture City,” said Nichole Steele, national sales director for Experience Grand Rapids. “Then they took the rapids out. Now we are putting them back in so we can utilize the river for such things as whitewater rafting [and] kayaking, and to make it an attraction again. Our three main convention hotel properties downtown overlook the Grand River, so everyone will get to enjoy the restoration.”

Grand Rapids is in western Michigan, 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, and boasts a growing population of about 195,000. For those flying in, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, located about 13 miles southeast of Grand Rapids, is served by a number of airlines. Interstates 96, 196 and 296 and U.S. 131 make the city easy to reach by auto, and Amtrak offers rail service to Chicago and Detroit and to other Michigan cities.

Experience Grand Rapids is putting out the welcome mat to planners who want a more affordable meeting destination aside from the much larger metropolitan areas in the region.

“We can offer them everything they need for a conference, just like in any other large city, but what sets us apart is how clean, safe, walkable and friendly our city is,” said Steele.

Meetings held in Grand Rapids attract a little bit of every sector but fall mostly into the categories of Michigan associations, statewide businesses and government, and corporate and environmental groups. Grand Rapids also has what it calls the Medical Mile, which comprises a wide variety of medical and health facilities. Staff members and visitors to those campuses are always holding meetings around the city. Spectrum Health is the largest employer in western Michigan, with 23,900 staff members, and Grand Rapids has a good percentage of them.

Like many second-tier cities in America, Grand Rapids is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.

“Our struggle with our city is that people don’t have a perception of us just yet,” said Steele, “so we are letting people know that we exist and what a great destination we are and why.”

Convention Center

DeVos Place convention center is a LEED-certified facility built in 2004 right on the Grand River in the heart of downtown. It features a 162,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall; a 40,000-square-foot ballroom; and 26 individual meeting rooms that total 32,000 square feet. For bigger events, planners should note there are 12 spacious loading docks available.

The south side of the building features the DeVos Performance Hall, which includes a 2,400-seat theater that is home to the Grand Rapids Symphony and Broadway Grand Rapids. Many smaller concerts and other types of shows are staged there. But meeting planners can also utilize the space for a general-session kickoff or a keynote address.

Distinctive Venues

There are several other unusual meeting venues in Grand Rapids. Downtown Market is one of them. It is a combination produce market, bakery and butchery and features various restaurants, a commercial kitchen and cooking school, a rooftop greenhouse and a performance hall. It has 24 retail shops and 25,000 square feet of market space and is open year-round. Visitors can enjoy freshly picked fruits and vegetables in season or sample artisan or ethnic dishes prepared on-site. There is banquet hall space that can be rented, too.

How about meeting in a tree house? Believe it or not, you can do that at the Bissell Tree House at the Ball Zoo, about two miles from downtown Grand Rapids. Located at one of the city’s highest points, the elegant space hovers in the treetops and offers a sweeping view of the downtown area below. There is a large ballroom and a catering kitchen. Seated meals for a group can be arranged, or you can host a cocktail party on the wrap-around deck.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum is another special meeting site. It is the city’s oldest museum and the second largest in Michigan. It houses a planetarium and a diverse collection of 250,000 artifacts and specimens. The property also houses a 1928 carved wooden Spillman carousel, which sits in a pavilion over the Grand River. It can be rented for events.

“It has a little bit of everything and is the largest of our three museums,” said Steele. “It can best accommodate meetings because it has three different levels, and we can host more than 1,000 people there.” 

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