by Melanie Wynne | May 01, 2017

Riding a wave of significant financial growth over the last seven years, Michigan's tourism sector is booming, which is good news for associations. New hotels and meeting venues are cropping up around the state, and there's been an increasing focus on arts and culture.

Needless to say, it's an exciting time to bring your group to the bustling cities and lush peninsulas of the Great Lakes State.

Greater Detroit: Driving in a New Direction

Listed as one of Zagat's 26 hottest food cities last year, Detroit is fast becoming a magnet for foodies. A slew of new restaurant hubs include Selden Standard and Wright & Co., while breweries and distilleries such as B. Nektar Meadery, the Batch Brewing Company, Brew Detroit, the Detroit City Distillery and Two James Spirits set the scene for convivial gatherings. And May 12 is the scheduled debut of QLINE, a 3.3-mile streetcar service that runs north from downtown along Woodward Avenue.

Jodie Boyd Cady, director of events for the Michigan Association of Realtors, has been organizing functions in Detroit for almost 20 years and recommends taking advantage of the city's museums, live music, Detroit Riverfront and Motown history. "Grab a craft beer or cocktail and soak it in," Cady said. "Detroit is a city that can only excite you!"

Cady also praised the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose staff "respects the value of every meeting that comes to the city, regardless of size. From the RFP to site visits, to load-on and load-out, they're there to support the planner any way they can," Cady said.  

One of the city's largest sites for events is the 2.4 million-square-foot Cobo Center. In December, the center completed a $2 million technology upgrade, which has notably improved its Wi-Fi network; according to Claude Molinari, its general manager, it was like "moving from a one-lane highway to a three-lane super-speedway."

Meanwhile, the Cobo's sustainability efforts have resulted in APEX/ASTM standard certification from the Green Meetings Industry Council, something that appealed to the annual Sustainable Brands conference, which moved from its regular destination of San Diego to Detroit this year.

Other groups that have recently met in town include the Michigan Association of School Administrators, which held its annual leadership conference last year at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, one of downtown's largest meeting hotels. Diane Dick, the association's conference and event planner, said she loves the property's riverfront location and the fact that it's served by a stop on the city's People Mover, which can "safely, easily and inexpensively" ferry groups around downtown.

Dick was also quick to laud the hotel's employees. "The staff at the Marriott Renaissance Center has always provided quality service, taking care of each and every need. And their Red Coat Direct technology makes life as a meeting planner much easier and is 24-hour accessible."

Several new properties are under construction in town including the 100-room Foundation Hotel, expected to open downtown this spring in the Detroit Fire Department Headquarters building. In the fall of 2018, the 130-room Shinola Hotel is scheduled to open on Woodward Avenue, and a 110-room Element Hotel will follow with a December opening in the Metropolitan Building. The 1926 Wurlitzer Building is being redeveloped as a 100-room hotel, and in Midtown, the furniture and home décor retailer West Elm is planning a 120-room hotel, also expected to open in 2018.

Just north of downtown, the $635 million Little Caesars Arena is gearing up to open in September. The 785,000-square-foot venue, which will serve as the new home of the NHL's Red Wings and NBA's Pistons, will be the cornerstone of District Detroit, a 50-block mixed use-development. September is also the anticipated opening of a new sports complex in Midtown with the nation's second indoor velodrome.

Favorite large venues include Joe Louis Arena, Comerica Park, Fox Theatre, the Fillmore/Detroit, the Masonic Temple and Ford Field, which is in the process of upgrading its Wi-Fi. Another notable site is the Motown Museum, which offers reception space and recently announced plans for a $50 million expansion that will include an additional 50,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, a state-of-the-art performance theater and additional meeting spaces.

Many venues and options await just outside of Detroit. About 30 miles northwest, the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi currently offers 214,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, but an expansion that will add 200,000 square feet of flexible event space is underway, with the completion targeted for next spring.

Several major universities are an easy drive west of Detroit and all offer event spaces. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan, and campus options include the Jack Roth Stadium Club, with space for up to 700; the Crisler Center Hall of Honor, with room for up to 500 people; and the Junge Family Champions Center, which can accommodate up to 400. Also in the area is Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, able to host groups of up to 10,000.

Southwest Michigan: Hard Work & Just Rewards

For a taste of the Netherlands, the town of Holland on Lake Macatawa is home to manicured Windmill Island Gardens that feature Dutch architecture, a 250-year-old windmill and picturesque gathering space for up to 300 from mid-May to late September. Less than two miles away, the LEED-certified CityFlats Hotel offers meeting space for up to 150.

Also in town is Hope College, which can host groups of up to 4,000. The Haworth Inn & Conference Center and the Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant's event center can also host events.

Gerald R. Ford International Airport is the hub for Michigan's second-largest city, Grand Rapids. For meetings, the city's convention center, DeVos Place, features a 162,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and a 2,404-seat theater among its spaces. Other popular venues include the DeltaPlex Arena & Conference Center, the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and the recently renovated Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, which saw the opening of the 8,000-square-foot DeVos Learning Center last June.

In September, the JW Marriott/Grand Rapids completed a renovation of its guest- and common-room interiors. The eco-conscious hotel, which employs extensive water-saving and recycling programs, has a ballroom that can accommodate up to 1,000 attendees as well as 14 meeting spaces. The Grand River Hotel (formerly the Riverfront Hotel) is undergoing renovations expected to continue through 2017.

New hotels include the 142-room Hampton Inn & Suites/Downtown, located on the Medical Mile, with 1,500 square feet of meeting space; the 110-room Homewood Suites by Hilton/Grand Rapids Downtown, four blocks from the convention center and offering meeting space for up to 104 as well as a rooftop bar; and the 180-suite Drury Inn & Suites/Grand Rapids, which has more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom for up to 150.

And as of last spring, three local hotels can take advantage of a partnership with Worklab by Custer, an executive downtown business center that offers concierge service, meeting space for up to 30 people and food and beverage service. Guests of the now-affiliated JW Marriott/Grand Rapids, Amway Grand Plaza and Courtyard/Grand Rapids Downtown can book the space.

Greater Lansing: Capital Ideas

The state capital is Lansing, and just three blocks away from the Michigan Capitol is the city's largest meeting facility, the Lansing Center, with 72,000 square feet of exhibit space. Joining a handful of event-friendly hotels such as the Ramada Lansing Hotel & Conference Center (which has 10 meeting rooms for events as large as 1,200) is the new Hyatt Place/Lansing-Eastwood Towne Center, which opened last year with 125 guest rooms and three meeting rooms, the largest of which is 1,200 square feet.

In East Lansing, a new and improved transportation option is the $6.3 million Capital Area Multimodal Gateway, which opened in January. Also in town is Michigan State University, home to several event venues.

Northern Michigan: Relax & Rejuvenate

On the northwest tip of Michigan's "mitten," Traverse City is known for its focus on fine arts, winemaking (yes, in Michigan!) and lake recreation. Kelly Warren, director of affiliate engagement for the Michigan Municipal League, has held her group's annual convention in this area several times but centered last year's gathering downtown for the first time-which proved to be a very good decision. With the "above and beyond" help of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau's Terese McInnis, Warren planned a campus-style event that utilized a wide variety of venues, giving her attendees a chance to explore this friendly metropolis in full.

Warren also housed her group in several lodgings, including the Holiday Inn Resort West Bay Beach, which recently expanded its bayside patio to include a private area for groups of up to 75, bringing its total event space to more than 10,000 square feet. Just down the street is the Bayshore Resort, with conference space for up to 89 people. The two properties bookend the Hagerty Center, a conference venue owned by Northwestern Michigan College that offers 8,600 square feet of flexible meeting and banquet space and houses the Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

A half-mile away is the Park Place Hotel, which is scheduled to begin a renovation and expansion project this summer; plans include a 7,800 square-foot conference hall that will accommodate up to 1,620 guests, as well as a 100-seat lecture hall and another nine meeting rooms. A new health club is also planned and the pool area will be improved. In other hotel news, the renamed Best Western Plus/Traverse City (formerly the Best Western Four Seasons) was renovated last year, and the Courtyard/Traverse City recently benefited from a $2 million update. And last May, the 107-room Hotel Indigo/Traverse City opened in the Warehouse District. It offers meeting space for up to 170 people.

The Michigan Municipal League held its opening reception at the Open Space, a public park overlooking the bay, and several breakout sessions were held at the Corner Loft, which can host events of up to 130. "This gem is in a perfect location downtown," Warren said. "I love the exposed brick and bay views from the big picture windows, and the owner, Marie, was awesome to work with."

Other popular venues include the 125-year-old City Opera House, which can seat up to 680 and recently opened the 1,550-square-foot John G. & Mary E. Melvin Overture Room, a third-floor event space that can accommodate up to 32; The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a mixed-use community that welcomes events at the 2,600-square-foot Kirkbride Hall; and the neighboring Historic Barns Park, whose renovated Cathedral Barn offers 3,535 square feet of space. Additionally, the Little Fleet, a group of food trucks, can host private parties with more than 20 people.

Gaining the Upper Hand

Michigan not only looks like a hand, it offers you one. From bustling cities to university towns and lakefront resorts, the state's varied destinations offer everything a planner would normally seek out-but with an added emphasis on customizing experiences for each visiting group. And that makes all the difference when it comes to pulling off an event viewed as successful by both association leadership and attendees.