Daniel Duggan
Crain's Detroit

After four years of preparation, the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau has secured a conference that it expects to generate close to $3 billion in economic impact over five years.

Dubbed by insiders the “Super Bowl of all conferences,” the 5,000-person American Society of Association Executives event will draw roughly 3,500 people in leadership roles of associations — people empowered to decide where their own conferences will be held.

“Any businessperson can imagine the idea of having all of their best clients or prospects in one place at one time,” said Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the visitors bureau.

Detroit won the 2015 conference of the Washington, D.C.-based ASAE, held for the leaders of trade groups and associations from around the country.

Though the conference is still five years away, Alexander said planning has already started. And while this event won't have the same level of media attention as the Super Bowl or the Final Four, Alexander said the hospitality industry is planning the same level of attention.

“We'll be naming a host committee, we'll be figuring out how many volunteers we need, decorations at the airport,” Alexander said. “And we're working on specific strategy for how to use this as a way to market the entire region.”

Alexander said the visitors bureau went after the ASAE conference three years ago and lost.

Since then, he and the entire staff have made securing the conference a priority. The visitors bureau has become very involved with the group, sponsoring other events and programs; Alexander even took a spot on its board of directors.

Leading up to the city's pitch for the conference, Detroit-based public relations firm Starrconstand prepared a bid packet, which included a DVD player that played a four-minute movie about Detroit starring Kid Rock.

For the 20-minute pitch in Washington, D.C., Waterford Township-based staging company Corporate Optics was hired to arrange and control three televisions, each showing different images while Edsel Ford II and Alexander spoke to the selecting panel.

Part of the pitch is the host city's vision for the three parties held at an ASAE convention: opening ceremonies, the food-and-wine party and the closing ceremony.

Detroit pitched an opening ceremony on Belle Isle with fireworks and a laser light show; a “culinary throw down” at The Henry Ford and a “concert of wild proportions” at the Fox Theatre to end the event.

The presentation was one of the best given to the board for the current round of bidding, said John Graham, president of the ASAE.

“I've seen some good presentations in the past, and that ranks up there as one of them,” he said.

Graham served on the board of the American Diabetes Association with Ford, so having him as part of the pitch was a nice touch, Graham said, “and Larry knew that I'd think it was a nice touch.”

Though Graham added that the presentation is the icing — the city's hotels, facilities and venues are the cake.

“You can have a great presentation, but you have to have a package to offer,” he said. “The city deserves a lot of credit for developing into a destination that will be attractive to a lot of meetings.”

Will the event really be worth it? Not even a question, Alexander said.

According to the ASAE, 20 percent to 25 percent of the executives who attend a conference will book an event in that city within five years.

For an average year with an attendance of 5,000 people, Alexander said 3,500 attendees represent conventions. So, based on the ASAE's analysis, Detroit could expect 700 to 875 conventions in five years.

Alexander said direct spending on a convention in Detroit can range from $2 million to $25 million on the high end.

Considering an average of $3.5 million per event, for 800 new conventions, the region would get $2.8 billion in direct spending.

Nashville earned new conferences after hosting the event in 1998 and 2005, said Butch Spyridon, Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO, though the exact number wasn't available.

He said that while the event is time-consuming and expensive, it has a tremendous return on investment. The city has been selected for 2014.

“There is a certain segment of the (meeting and convention) market that has a comfort level about where they will go,” he said. “When you can get clients out of that comfort area, you can demonstrate what you can do in your city.

“We've found that when we can get the client base into our city, the closing rate increases dramatically.”

For Detroit, the meeting will be a chance to show off the facilities, hotels and the region, said Tim McCarthy, visitors bureau chairman.

“We'll be showing off the city,” said McCarthy, also president and COO of Detroit-based Checker Cab. “But we'll have a great plan put together to encourage those in attendance to bring their business back to the region.”


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