Encompassing Grand Rapids, the state's second-largest city, Lansing, the capital, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and a chunk of the Lake Michigan shoreline, southwest Michigan is a diverse, growing region that is big on hospitality. Its main cities have primary convention facilities in walkable, rejuvenated downtown districts brimming with museums, attractions and restaurants.
The region boasts a city that this year was ranked the best in the country to raise a family (Grand Rapids). And, along with Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing have been appearing toward the top of the list when it comes to studies of U.S. manufacturing job growth.
It also has one city that this year took the title Beer City USA (Grand Rapids again) and another that placed number four among the country's Top 10 beer cities (Kalamazoo).
In the words of the Experience Grand Rapids CVB, this is a city "topped off by the most vibrant downtown between Chicago and Cleveland—all the benefits of a big city with none of the hassle."
Located on the Grand River 30 miles east of Lake Michigan's beaches, Grand Rapids was the hometown of President Gerald Ford and is the seat of Kent County. Long ago, it became "Furniture City" on account of its office furniture manufacturing.
Last year, the CVB booked more than 125,000 future group room nights for the third consecutive year, and Grand Rapids/Kent County hotels increased hotel occupancy by nearly 7 percent and RevPAR by almost 11 percent over 2010, leading the CVB to announce "a banner year." For the first seven months of this year, occupancy was up 5.5 percent and its ADR was up 3.4 percent, according to Smith Travel Research (STR).
Of the country's 100 largest metro areas, Grand Rapids was ranked No. 1 by Forbes magazine in April among the top 10 Best Cities for Raising a Family. Basing its decision on such factors as affordability, commuting, crime, education and housing, Forbes said, "The relative strength of Grand Rapids' housing market is enough to push it past the next two cities on our list, Boise, Idaho, and Provo, Utah."
Grand Rapids is also "Beer City USA" (it tied this year with Ashville, N.C., the previous annual winner in a nationwide poll). To celebrate the honor, 10 area breweries teamed up to create Beer City Pale Ale for July, which was designated Michigan's Craft Beer Month by the state legislature.
"Grand Rapids is compact, easy to get around and affordable. It offers a bustling downtown with more than 90 restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, museums and sports venues within a five-minute walk," says Kate Wiltzer, spokeswoman for Experience Grand Rapids.
"It's also easily accessible," she says, noting it is 2.5 hours by car from Detroit and three hours from Chicago. Additionally, eight airlines serve the city's Gerald R. Ford International Airport with more than 120 daily nonstop flights.
Meanwhile, of Kent County's 7, 500 hotel rooms, 1,412 of them are downtown.
DeVos Place, the downtown riverfront convention center, delivers 250,000 square feet of space, including a 162,000-square-foot, column free exhibit hall, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 26 meeting rooms. The 2,404-seat DeVos Performance Hall, home to symphony, opera, ballet and Broadway plays, is also part of the complex, and nearby is the 12,000-seat Van Andel Arena.
Between the center and the arena, and all connected by enclosed skywalk, are the 682-room Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, with 47,000 square feet of meeting space; the 300-room JW Marriott, with 15,000 square feet of function space; and the 214-room Courtyard by Marriott, with 10,000 square feet of meeting space. Across the river from DeVos Place sits the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
Also nearby is the city's newest hotel, the 28-room CityFlats Grand Rapids, a conversion of the former Fox Building designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification. The property debuted last year, and last month, it opened an adjacent ballroom holding up to 225 people.
Downtown museums with function space include the Grand Rapids Public Museum, available for events of up to 1,200; the Grand Rapids Children's Museum, with 1,290 square feet of meeting space; and the Grand Rapids Art Museum, with a wide range of spaces. Minutes away is the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, with 16 event spaces.
The newest indoor event space is the Bissell Tree House, which opened in August and features a ballroom accommodating 300 overlooking downtown. Located at John Ball Zoo, it can be reached by groups via a four-minute hilltop funicular railway ride from a parking area.
Holland, situated on the coast 30 minutes southwest of Grand Rapids, was settled by Dutch immigrants in the mid-1800s. The city has 1,500 hotel rooms.
"We can accommodate everything from small board meetings and conferences to midsize conventions and trade shows," says Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area CVB. "Our friendly Dutch hospitality and beautiful landscapes provide the perfect setting to boost meeting attendance and increase family participation."
The city's two largest meetings hotels are the 168-room Doubletree Hotel Holland, hosting banquets for up to 500 people, and the 50-room Haworth Inn & Conference Center, with banquet seating for up to 350 people. The Haworth is situated on Hope College campus, which has meeting spaces for up to 4,000 people. The city also has a civic center with a capacity for 2,400 people and 50 exhibitor booths.
Lansing was chosen in 1847 as the site of the state capital, which was in Detroit at the time, because of its central location. Situated where the Grand River and the Red Cedar River converge, it is home to Michigan State University (MSU) and has 4,300 hotel rooms.
"We are centrally located within 90 miles of 90 percent of the state's population. State associations are a big market for us, and we have lots of unique venues," says Tracy Padot, vice president of marketing communications at the Greater Lansing CVB.
Lansing Center, the downtown riverfront convention facility, has more than 175,000 square feet of space, including almost 72,000 square feet of column-free exhibit halls and 13,300 square feet of ballroom space.
Across the river, Radisson Hotel Lansing is connected to Lansing Center via a covered skybridge. Located a block east of the Michigan State Capitol, the hotel has 10,000 square feet of conference space.
Across from the Lansing Center, delegates can watch the Lansing Lugnuts, a minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, at Cooley Law School Stadium. And just to the north is Lansing City Market, which dates to 1909.
MSU venues include the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, with a great hall, two theaters and an auditorium, and the 160-room Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, with 35,000 square feet of meeting space. Opening there Nov. 9 will be the new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, a Zaha Hadid-designed, 46,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, which will serve as a teaching institution and cultural hub.
Other attractions include the 100-acre Potter Park Zoo, which has pavilions and an education center available for meetings and functions.
Lansing's Capital Region International Airport has service to five U.S. cities, including Orlando, which Allegiant inaugurates Nov. 1 with two weekly flights.
Kalamazoo is 76 miles southwest of Lansing and about 50 miles from both Grand Rapids and the coast.
It has more than 3,000 hotel rooms and can accommodate groups of up to 3,000 people, according to Discover Kalamazoo. Meanwhile, Kalamazoo County has five major wineries and three breweries.
The AAA Four Diamond Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites downtown has 340 guest rooms and Kalamazoo's largest amount of meeting space (45,000 square feet). A major renovation at the property, scheduled for completion in December, will include a new look for its 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall.
The Radisson is anchored to the north by Kalamazoo Mall and to the south by the Epic Center, which includes restaurants, retail and two performance theaters that can be rented.
With seven indoor rental spaces, Kalamazoo County Expo Center & Fairground provides the city's largest single space (20,000 square feet). It has the second-largest amount of total space (37,600 square feet).
Other major meeting facilities include the Bernard Center and Fetzer Center, both at Western Michigan University, and two other hotels: Holiday Inn West and the Four Points by Sheraton Kalamazoo (formerly the Clarion), each with more than 3,000 square feet of space. Attractions with meeting space include the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Air Zoo, an aviation museum and indoor amusement park adjacent to Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport.
Served by three carriers, the airport opened a $30 million-plus, 92,000-square-foot main airport terminal in April last year, much larger than the one it replaced.
Battle Creek, located 30 minutes east of Kalamazoo, is home to Kellogg Company and known as "Cereal City."
Downtown Battle Creek features the McCamly Plaza Hotel, with more than 15,000 square feet of meeting space and 239 newly renovated guest rooms, and, connected by a mall area, the Kellogg Arena, with 30,000 square feet of space.
"Battle Creek/Calhoun County provides the perfect combination of convenient location, great facilities, service and fun activities to please every group—a small-town feel with big-city amenities," says Jodi Bowen, director of communications at the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. "Located between Detroit and Chicago, the area is easily accessible. And there are many options for attendees, families and spouses."
She adds that Downtown is in the process of a transformation, including new lighting, streetscapes, landscaping, pavers and art.
Among the attractions catering to groups are Binder Park Zoo; Full Blast Water Park, which can handle groups of up to 600 and features team-building programs; Southern Exposure Herb Farm, with restored farm buildings; and the 400-acre Cornwell's Turkeyville, which includes a dinner theater.
The newest hotel is the Holiday Inn-Battle Creek, which opened in 2008.
That will change in December when FireKeepers Casino opens a 242-room hotel and a 20,000-square-foot multipurpose event center seating 2,000 for concerts. Owned and operated by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the casino features a 107,000-square-foot gaming floor with 2,800 slot machines, 70 table games, poker and bingo rooms, and five dining destinations.
On the coast close to the Indiana line, the 3,000-slot Four Winds Casino Resort is owned and operated by the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. This summer, the tribe unveiled a new 250-room hotel tower, bringing the casino's total room count to 415, plus a Hard Rock Cafe and a 1,500-seat, multiuse special events center.
Tony Bartlett has been writing about the travel industry for more than 25 years.