Midwest Steel workers pose last year in front of the steel frame that will make up a new atrium at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. Coboís $279 million renovations, set to be completed in 2015, will add to its marketing appeal, said Thom Connors, Cobo Center general manager. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
With renovations well under way at Cobo Center and new hotels under construction and others being rehabbed, the future of Metro Detroit's convention business is looking up after years of few options and unimpressive facilities.
While the number of conventions in the metro area remains flat from 2012 to 2013, industry officials and others expect significant gains as exhibit space upgrades and hotel and other improvements come to fruition.
"Even with some of the challenges we face, the interest in Detroit is growing," said Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Our message is getting out that we are America's next comeback city."
New, large groups are booking meetings and conventions for 2014 and 2015, and some old customers, such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and American Gear Association, are returning after avoiding Detroit.
"Detroit was on the downside; it was not viewed as very good just because it hadn't been kept up to the rest of the market," said Eric Blanc, director of sales and marketing for the Tampa Convention Center in Florida. "It's good to hear the city is putting some additional efforts to become more competitive. If Detroit's more competitive, we're all better off at the end."
Despite that optimism, concerns linger among convention organizers about the city's financial problems, but local officials say such fears are eased after planners visit the Motor City.
Alcoholics Anonymous officials recently toured Detroit for the first time in four years after committing to host their 2020 convention here. A.A. leaders were worried about the state's Emergency Manager decision and wanted to determine firsthand whether to pull the event.
But after the trip, members of the A.A. group were so "wowed" by the city's improvements that they chose to keep the convention — and 60,000 estimated attendees — in Detroit, Bohde said.
"(A.A. officials) were pleased with what they saw and heard; A.A. looks forward to being in Detroit," the New York-based organization said in a statement.
About 25 conventions of 1,000 attendees or more have been scheduled throughout Metro Detroit for 2013, according to the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau. That doesn't include the dozens of smaller conventions and trade shows that take place at the same facilities, including Detroit's three casinos.
Cobo has more major conventions (nine) booked than any other hotel or meeting space in the tri-county area. The 1,298-room Marriott at the Renaissance Center in Detroit follows with six, and the 772-room Adoba in Dearborn — formally the Hyatt Regency — ranks third with five.
The Adoba, with 500 fewer rooms than the Marriott and far less meeting space then either the Marriott or Cobo, is happy to just tread water and lure back organizations that left when the Hyatt closed.
"We're a really good fit for a lot of groups," said Adrienne Pumphrey, part owner of the Adoba brand. "We're back in the game, and we're interested in playing a bigger part."
A number of hotels are likely to play a bigger role in the future.
The Marriott is set to undergo renovations, expected to be finished by 2014. The former Pontchartrain Hotel, next door to Cobo Center, will reopen later this year after renovations as a Crowne Plaza, and the city's fire department building could become a boutique hotel soon. A 136-room Aloft boutique hotel is coming to the old David Whitney building on Woodward, too.
And in Novi, the 126-room Hyatt Place Hotel will open in July, making the Suburban Collection Showplace more appealing.
Bohde cited the M-1 light rail project and new Detroit Red Wings arena and entertainment district as additional draws for would-be event bookers.
"It's just going to add to that density downtown," Bohde said. "Detroit is really on a genuine comeback."
Cobo Center — whose ownership transferred from the city to the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority in 2009 — remains the biggest player in Metro Detroit's convention business. And its $279 million renovations, set to be complete in 2015, will add to its marketing appeal, said Thom Connors, Cobo Center general manager.
Connors said convention bookings were up 18 percent from 2011-2012. This year, they've been able to add new business and re-sign former accounts.
The Dearborn-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers — the largest event-producing manufacturing organization in the country — used to host events at Cobo regularly, but hasn't been downtown in 10 years because the facilities weren't good enough, said Debbie Holton, director of events. But after hearing about Cobo's renovations, the society decided to give it another shot.
The society will host a manufacturing event that's expected to draw about 7,000 members to Cobo in June 2014.
"We got an opportunity to see (the planned renovations) and it blew us away," Holton said. "We're very positive and optimistic about the facility changes and changes to the management."