Monday, February 09, 2009

Expert says casinos won't help Detroit's convention prospects

Detroit: The odds are long

Las Vegas might have gaming to thank for at least getting it started down the road to its exalted tradeshow status. So shouldn’t the same strategy work elsewhere? Apparently, it hasn’t been enough for hard-hit Detroit, which boasts three casinos.

According to William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Detroit has a fine convention facility in Cobo Center, “but casinos won’t help.”

Thompson added, “There isn’t much in Detroit in the way of nightclubs and restaurants, its image is bad and its hotels aren’t inexpensive.”

David Austin, director of sales and marketing at Cobo Center, agreed that negative perceptions are a continuous struggle and Chris Baum, Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau senior vice president of sales and marketing, acknowledged that Detroit isn’t many planners’ first choice. However, convention business that was booked years before the recession will tide the city over, he added.

Still, corporate meeting business is “horrible,” Baum said, which is why, although the CVB’s marketing department has experienced some staff attrition and may send three people, instead of four, to industry tradeshows, “we’re still marketing very aggressively.”

Austin said the CVB has done a great job letting people know that this isn’t the same old Detroit.

“I grew up here,” Austin added. “When I returned in 2003 after 17 years, a change had truly occurred, and today Detroit is being transformed. Invariably, when meeting planners visit for the first time, the positive comments are, 'I didn’t know Detroit was like this,’ or, 'This is not what I was expecting.’ So, if we can overcome this perception issue, we certainly can beat this economic downturn.”

Michigan only has three non-Indian gaming licenses, all in Detroit. Even so, Thompson said it is hard to see how the presence of the MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino Hotel or Greektown Casino have stimulated the tourism or tradeshow business. Most casino visitors come from within 50 miles of the city; otherwise, the state has 20 Indian-owned casinos to satisfy gamblers, he added.

Each of the Detroit casinos has a hotel with about 400 rooms, but they haven’t been much help drawing convention or tradeshow attendees to town, Thompson said.

“The casino hotels are small and not luxurious,” he added.

Nevertheless, Austin said there hasn’t been much of a downturn in Cobo tradeshows.

“We have a decent 2009 lined up and 2010 is shaping up as the best year at Cobo since 2003, but, obviously, with the automotive industry taking a huge hit, everybody is tightening their belts,” he said.

Austin noted that 2006 union work rule changes at Cobo now allow exhibitors and show management to do more of their own work, and recent legislation will create an authority to operate Cobo, as well as generate funds for a renovation and expansion.

Chris McClain, director of the MGM Grand Detroit, which opened in October 2007, said he is encouraged by the city’s potential for conventions and meetings. “We have remained steady in comparison with 2008 and our 2009 projections,” McClain added.

–Gary Tufel

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