Grand Rapids may be Michigan’s second-largest city, but the folks at the local convention and visitors bureau seem to think the destination has a little identity problem.
“Our struggle with our city is that people don’t have a perception of us just yet,” said Nichole Steele, the national sales director for Experience Grand Rapids. “So, we are letting people know that we exist and what a great destination we are and why.”
This city of 200,000 people in western Michigan is eager for visitors to discover all its attributes, beginning with its downtown.
“What people and groups will like about downtown Grand Rapids is its walkability,” said Tom Bennett, vice president of sales and services for the CVB. “It’s clean and safe. Most of our museums and attractions are within walking distance of our downtown convention center and hotels. We have a bunch of new downtown hotels in the works for 2019, too.” Well organized walking tours are available for curious explorers.
The next Going On Faith Conference will take place in Grand Rapids September 4-6. “That time of year — September — will be beautiful and the weather just perfect,” said Bennett.
The city is a popular meeting spot for faith-based groups. Coming in 2019 are such meetings as Connect Faith and the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. Other major recent meetings have included the Church of the Brethren, the Lutheran Education Association, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, and Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries International. In addition, Grand Rapids is considered one of the centers for Christian publishing.
Historically, Grand Rapids has been known as Furniture City USA thanks to its penchant for manufacturing home furniture. Though that part of the industry has waned, the city is still home to three of the world’s leading office furniture companies. The city is economically diverse, and the information technology, aviation, automotive and health care sectors are strongly represented in the community. The city’s largest employer is Spectrum Health, with more than 25,000 employees.
“The economy is doing great here,” said Bennett. “We have what we call the Medical Mile, just up Michigan Street from downtown. There is a billion dollars’ worth of medical infrastructure and one of the best children’s hospitals anywhere. Michigan State University has its College of Human Medicine and a scientific research center there.”
The heartbeat of downtown Grand Rapids is the DeVos Place Convention Center, where groups of all types gather for business and pleasure. It is right on the picturesque Grand River, and many meeting rooms overlook the waterway. “I have been in the travel industry a long time, and I can tell you DeVos Place is as well-run a convention center as I have seen in the country,” said Bennett, who went on to say that the staff provides excellent customer service when it comes to function space, food and beverage, audiovisual technology and more.
Bennett believes a lot of the delegates attending the Going On Faith conference this summer will wander onto the center’s large patio for breaks and relaxation and to take in the downtown sites. The center’s lobby is also a showplace, and there are many beautiful art pieces spread around the structure.
Vandenberg Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids is home to a major piece of public art created by renowned artist Alexander Calder. It is known as “La Grande Vitesse,” which translates loosely to “grand rapids.” It was the first public artwork in the country to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
History abounds just east of downtown in Heritage Hill, considered to be the city’s first neighborhood. There are 1,300 homes there that date back as early as 1848. One of them was designed in 1908 by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Museums for Everyone
Grand Rapids is a city of museums, and there are some outstanding ones for visitors to enjoy. Bennett said the second-most-visited attraction in Michigan, after the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, is the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, a remarkable 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park. It is known internationally for the quality of its art pieces and beautiful gardens. It features a wonderful Japanese Zen garden. “This is an absolute can’t-miss-it attraction in our area,” said Bennett.
Right across the river from downtown Grand Rapids is something special for history enthusiasts: the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Ford was raised in Grand Rapids and represented the area in Congress for 25 years before ascending to the presidency in 1974. The museum has both permanent and changing exhibits that highlight the lives of the nation’s 38th president and first lady Betty Ford. The museum grounds are also the couple’s final resting place. The international airport, 13 miles southeast of Grand Rapids, is named after President Ford.
Another museum of note downtown is the Grand Rapids Art Museum, popularly known as the GRAM. There are more than 5,000 works of art inside, ranging from Renaissance pieces to the modern era, so there is always something of interest for museum visitors.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum is also in the heart of downtown and contains three floors of exhibits, a planetarium, a carousel, a theater and a cafe. In addition to all that, the city boasts a fun children’s museum to entertain kids who come along on trips to Grand Rapids.
Another smaller museum, the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, collects and displays items honoring the lives, history and culture of African and African-American communities.
The performing arts are well represented in Grand Rapids with such venues as the new Civic Theatre, the DeVos Performance Hall, the Van Andel Arena, Royce Auditorium and several more. The Grand Rapids Symphony was founded in 1930. Ballet and opera companies and a chorus also perform for the public.
Professional sports are big in Grand Rapids with baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer teams drawing fans to cheer them on.
Nearby Lake Michigan
Grand Rapids is fortunate to be just 30 miles or so from the spectacular shores of Lake Michigan and its many unique beach towns. The area is so special that Condé Nast Traveler magazine rated Lake Michigan as one of the top 25 shorelines not just in the U.S. or in North America, but in the world. The pristine white-sand beaches and the towering sand dunes pull in tourists by the millions from around the nation and the world.
“The beach scene at Lake Michigan is fantastic,” said Bennett. “People visiting Grand Rapids can take a short drive west of the city to the expansive lake and its gorgeous sand and waves. There are a number of beach towns situated there, like Grand Haven, South Haven, Holland — with its Dutch history — and Saugatuck.”
These towns are often described as cute, quaint beach communities with tourists wandering the streets, checking out the activities, shopping and eating in restaurants.
“Everyone in Michigan likes to escape to the water on the weekends,” said Bennett. Many people climb aboard a charter boat for some outstanding fishing on this large Great Lake.
Hotels and Restaurants
The DeVos Place Convention Center is connected by climate-controlled skywalks to three major downtown Grand Rapids hotels with a total of 1,200 rooms. All together, the city center area has seven hotels, but not for long. Later this year, five more will be added for a downtown total of about 2,500 guest rooms. Many of the old and new hotels offer banquet and meeting space for groups, as well as theater and classroom areas.
In addition to all the museums in the downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants to enjoy.
“There are so many I can’t begin to tell you about all of them,” Bennett said. “There are probably a hundred within walking distance of the heart of downtown. You can get great sushi, Chinese, Thai and American fare like upscale steakhouses — every type of food. There are great bars, a wine bar, a dueling-pianos bar and a lot more.”
Beer is popular in Grand Rapids, as it seems to be everywhere else in the U.S., and it’s become quite a local industry.
“We have about half a dozen breweries that are within walking distance of the convention center,” said the CVB’s Steele. “We have about 50 all together in the metro area. A group may want to visit a brewery and then have a food pairing with it, which has become a very popular activity.” Grand Rapids has many interesting brewery tours, and of course, they include a free tasting. Grand Rapids has competed with other American cities for the title of “Beer City.”