As urban accolades go, Grand Rapids could take the prize as one of the most awarded metros in recent years.
Just a few of the many praises: No. 1 fastest-growing economy in the U.S. (Forbes), fifth most underrated city in America (Travel + Leisure), best river town (Outside); one of the 10 best college towns in America (Matador Network), one of 52 places to go worldwide (New York Times) and America’s No. 1 travel destination (Lonely Planet). Why all the buzz?
“Simply put, we are a cool place,” said Tim Nelson, director of convention services for Experience Grand Rapids.
Apparently so. Expedia also recently chimed in, naming Grand Rapids one of America’s super cool cities.
Could it have all started in 2011 with that lip-dub video gone viral that Experience Grand Rapids pulled off? With seemingly the whole town joining in on a one-take whirlwind tour through the city, lip-syncing, dancing and cheering to Don McLean’s American Pie?
Channing & Quinn, One Trick Pony
Whatever kicked it off, it’s official. This contagiously popular “Lip-Dub Capital of the World” (as named by YouTube) knows how to have fun and entertain visitors, meeting attendees among them.
Whether indulging in the thriving food and drink scene—craft breweries and distilleries included, exploring diverse, emerging neighborhoods, taking in the vibrant arts and cultural scene or kayaking on the river, planners have plenty of intriguing experiences to weave into Grand Rapids agendas, while attendees have plenty of downtime diversions to enjoy.
“Grand Rapids has changed a lot,” Nelson said, citing the city’s booming infrastructure, growing diversity of restaurants, breweries, nightlife and shopping, all within a compact downtown area that makes everything easily accessible, as well as within popular neighborhoods connected by public transportation. “People are coming to meetings and conventions for more than what is offered in the sessions, and planners are aware of the need to offer experiences within a community. Grand Rapids delivers that in a very easy way.”
Nelson said two neighborhoods popular with visiting attendees are Uptown and the West Side.
Sovengard, West Side
“Uptown, east of downtown, is an eclectic area with four distinct districts that draw visitors with restaurants, galleries, shops and nightlife,” he said. “The West Side, or Bridge Street, is a culturally diverse neighborhood that’s just across the river from downtown. It’s a revitalized area that has become one continuous span of six or eight blocks, and there’s a new urban market, restaurants and breweries, and our free shuttle goes there.”
Meanwhile, the arts and cultural scene continues to be a mainstay of the destination—and turn heads.
Ever aiming to elevate the cool factor, Grand Rapids is home to ArtPrize, the world’s largest radically open international art competition. The 19-day festival just finished its 10th annual installment in October and will now be held bi-annually. This year, more than 1,400 artists entered. Awards exceed $500,000, including a $200,000 prize awarded entirely by public vote and a $200,000 prize awarded by a jury of experts.
Long Road Distillers
Museums are another cultural strong suit for Grand Rapids.
The city’s top institution that also doubles as an expansive off-site venue for groups is Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the second most visited attraction in Michigan.
The venue recently launched a $115 million expansion project. Its current 158-acre main campus is home to acclaimed sculptures and themed gardens, and the venue can handle all types of corporate meetings and occasions. Outdoor events make it a premier choice, according to Nelson.
“Frederik Meijer is a favorite for groups,” Nelson said. “It offers something different with the outdoor setting amid all the sculptures and gardens. We’re doing so much more in the way of outdoor events—from events at Meijer gardens to dinners on bridges overlooking the river to dinners in parks. It allows people to really immerse themselves in our unique environment and community.”
Grand Rapids Art Museum also sets the stage for memorably artistic off-sites for groups. The LEED Gold-certified venue features more than 5,000 works of art and hosts a popular Creativity Uncorked hands-on weekly event for anyone to drop in. Yoga evenings amid the renowned art collection are even part of the event program.
For active attendees, outdoor recreation is readily available in and around Grand Rapids, including hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing or simply taking a trip to the beaches along Lake Michigan, located 30 minutes west of the city. The region boasts 50 lakes and four rivers, including the Grand River, the state’s longest, which runs right through downtown. Companies such as GR Paddling and Grand River Canoe and Kayak can arrange waterborne excursions.
Meanwhile, a project is currently under way to put the rapids back into the Grand River by 2025, which will make it even more attractive for outdoor enthusiasts seeking a thrill—right outside the convention center and hotels.
“One of reasons we’ve become a huge group destination is because we have something for every type of interest, whether you’re into arts and music, breweries, food or the outdoors,” said Stephanie Kotschevar, public relations manager for Experience Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids CVB Information
Experience Grand Rapids
As one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Grand Rapids has experienced a surge in capital development, including the hospitality sector. The city is experiencing one of its most aggressive periods of growth to date, with nearly 900 hotel rooms coming online in the next two years to meet demand—700 of the rooms in 2019 alone.
“As much as we have grown in popularity for our food and beer scene, our distilleries and our nightlife, what’s most important for meeting planning is facilities and accessibility,” said Tim Nelson, director of convention services for Experience Grand Rapids, pointing to increased air service that has resulted in 25 nonstops from all major airlines. “With our current venues and upcoming facilities, along with all of the added diversions, the possibilities are a little more than what people might expect.”
Visitor arrivals have steadily increased year over year, coming in at 18 million for 2016, the latest figures available for Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located.
Demand has spurred development of hotels in recent years, including two new properties in the nearby suburb of Grandville: the 100-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott and the 80-room Best Western Plus Grand Castle Inn and Suites.
In 2019, several meetings-ready properties will debut in downtown Grand Rapids, including the 130-room AC Hotel by Marriott, located in a 127-year-old restored building; the 164-room Canopy by Hilton, part of the Studio Park development that also will include a nine-screen movie complex; the 160-room Hyatt Place Grand Rapids; the 110-room, riverfront Staybridge Suites; and the 246-room Embassy Suites by Hilton.
A 146-room Marriott Residence Inn is also planned.
With high-quality, solid brands coming into the market, Nelson said Experience Grand Rapids will be able to target new clientele while satisfying increased demand.
“We have grown to fill our convention center, and hotels are running at high occupancies,” he said. “With the new hotels, it will allow us to go after niche markets. We’re seeing a lot more interest from medical and life sciences markets, for example.
He added that properties such as the Embassy Suites will be ideal for niche markets such as medical, since it will include extensive meeting facilities and is so close to the city’s Medical Mile development.
“Embassy Suites will also be only two blocks from the convention center, so it will be a great overflow or headquarters hotel,” he added.
Meanwhile, an increase in bookings at the city’s convention center, DeVos Place, has prompted developers to propose adding a 400-room hotel to the center as well as 115,000 square feet of additional exhibit space.
Michigan has certainly cemented its place as a hot spot for food and drink, with culinary havens such as Ann Arbor, Detroit and now—Grand Rapids. Tasting Table recently called it one of 27 under-the-radar culinary gems, and it was named the No. 2 best food and beverage destination experience by the World Food Travel Association’s Food Trekking Awards 2017.
“Something that’s different is that we’re really known now for our craft beer, distillery and cider movements, and our breweries are some of our best restaurants,” said Stephanie Kotschevar, public relations manager for Experience Grand Rapids. “One comment I always get from people I take to a brewery is that they thought they were getting pub grub, and they are always pleasantly surprised.”
Indeed, Grand Rapids chefs have taken the farm-to-table concept to hyper-local status and have come up with some unique concepts in cuisine.
A few of Kotschevar’s favorites for groups are Brewery Vivant, The Mitten Brewing Co., City Built Brewing Co., Founders Brewing Co. and Creston Brewery.
“Brewery Vivant’s cuisine has a French flair and it is situated in one of the city’s most unique locations—a former funeral home,” she said.
The brewery features eclectic French-inspired cuisine and Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales.
“Mitten is set within an old firehouse and carries a baseball theme, which makes it a fun, casual spot with great food,” she said.
Mitten specializes in classic styles of beer such as ales, IPAs, porters and stouts, and is a favorite for unique pizzas, including a pizza flight with 25 squares featuring different toppings. Vegan items are also available.
“City Built is really popular for its Puerto Rican food and interesting beer, and it just opened a year ago,” Kotschevar said.
Among the many creative craft brews at City Built are orange saison, green tea chamomile pale ale and blueberry wheat.
“Founders is one of the best brewery restaurants in the city, and they make great sandwiches,” she said.
Founders takes sandwiches to new heights with artisan breads and cheeses, house-made sauces, fresh vegetables and top-quality meats and poultry.
“Creston is another great spot,” Kotschevar said. “Their brewery is in an old furniture showroom, and the food is Mexican-themed. They just renovated the upper-level room, which is now an event and conference space called the Golden Age.”
Creston’s beer selection runs the full gamut, from light lagers to rich stouts, and its menu is inspired by seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
Another liquid lure in Grand Rapids is Long Road Distillers.
“It was the first distillery to open in Grand Rapids and has really put us on the map for distilling thanks to all the awards they win,” Kotschevar said. “They produce things like aquavit as well as gin made with Michigan botanicals, which is pretty unique.”
Meanwhile, the city’s Downtown Market is also a foodie favorite that accommodates group events.
“Downtown Market is a great one,” Kotschevar said. “They have a lot of different vendors, from a sushi counter to a Thai counter and much more. Upstairs, there’s an area for cooking classes, which is a nice option for groups.”