Detroit’s recent emergence from bankruptcy is creating a healthy, vibrant city poised to host more tourism and conventions than any time in decades, said Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau (DMCVB).
“We are watching history in the making as Downtown Detroit becomes the great city it was decades ago–shedding its debt, attracting major investors and bringing in the amenities and services that draw new residents and visitors,” he said. “This is a city now expected to grow faster than the U.S. gross domestic product.”
Detroit’s transformation has created international visitor interest and changed the conversation about the city, added Alexander.
“While there’s much work targeted now for the neighborhoods, progress has been swift downtown. The difficult days of marketing the destination as a convention city while national news stories focused only on corruption, blight and crime rates, are in the rear view mirror,” he stated.
The key is convincing meeting planners that Detroit has top-notch facilities to host groups, starting with the Cobo Convention Center, Alexander said. In addition to his DMCVB role, he is also chairman of the board of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which is spearheading a $279 million transformation of the center expected to be complete early next year.
DMCVB’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Bill Bohde echoed that downtown is now ready and able to host marquee conventions and events. In addition to the Cobo renovation, two new boutique hotels are under construction, and a new hotel directly across from the convention center opened last year, adding to an inventory of 5,000 luxury hotel rooms. The city’s largest convention hotel—the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center—is undergoing a $30 million renovation of its guest and meeting rooms.
More than $1 billion has been invested by Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans in the last few years, including renovations to Greektown Casino and the purchase and renovation of 60 skyscrapers. Mike Ilitch, owner of Little Caesars Pizza, the Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, is behind a $650-million hockey arena and entertainment district in the heart of downtown encompassing 45 city blocks previously unoccupied that broke ground recently and is scheduled to open in fall 2016.
A new 3.3 mile light rail system connecting key attractions is now under construction. Restaurants are opening weekly and unique retail has put roots in the city, such as Shinola, whose flagship store and factory moved into Detroit last year, selling handmade, upscale watches and bicycles. Fashion designer John Varvatos also plans to open a store in downtown Detroit.
In a show of support by the corporate sector, Chrysler just added offices downtown and Fifth Third Bank Eastern Michigan announced last month it is moving its regional headquarters and 150 full-time employees to downtown Detroit from Southfield. Major grocery stores have opened to support the influx of residents to the city, such as the upscale Whole Foods Market.
Bohde said the DMCVB is developing a strategic plan to communicate the positive change and what the city and region now have to offer convention delegates and other visitors.
An advertising campaign with the tagline “America’s great comeback city” was adopted by the DMCVB when the bankruptcy filing was still new, but the transformation of the city was well underway.
“We can say without hesitation that the tagline’s premise is true, and we can deliver a unique, affordable and completely fulfilling convention experience,” Bohde said.
The convention sales staff have been redeployed and expanded over the past year to handle bookings that were already outpacing previous years. Convention bookings are projected to increase 140 percent from 2014 to 2021. Five major groups booked citywide conventions last year, growing to 14 major bookings this year in Detroit, and 16 already signed contracts for next year.
Among them are:
■ United Auto Workers Collective Bargaining— 2015
Total Attendance: 3,000
■ Automotive Service Association — 2015
Total Attendance: 6,000
■ Youmacon — 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018
Total Attendance: 14,000 each year
■ USA Volleyball — 2015, 2017, 2018
Total Attendance: 10,000 each year
■ Communications Workers of America — 2015
Total Attendance: 1,400
■ Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — 2015
Total Attendance: 36,000
■ Pentecostal Assemblies of the World — 2015
Total Attendance: 6,000
■ National Medical Association — 2015
Total Attendance: 2,000
■ American Society of Association Executives — 2015
Total Attendance: 7,000
■ Michigan Distributive Education Clubs of America — 2016, 2018
Total Attendance: 3,000 each year
■ Service Employees International Union — 2016
Total Attendance: 2,700
■ Church of God in Christ — 2016
Total Attendance: 12,000
■ NeighborWorks America — 2016
Total Attendance: 1,200
■ National Baptist Convention, USA — 2015
Total Attendance: 55,000
■ American Communications Network — 2017, 2019
Total Attendance: 18,000 each year
■ Alcoholics Anonymous — 2020
Total Attendance: 65,000