Q&A: How Detroit Meetings Are Coming Back Strong

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Cobo Center Detroit
Cobo Center will complete a $279 million renovation this summer.

No city in America in modern times has faced a broader level of challenges than Detroit due to economic forces beyond the city’s control, spurred by the downfall of American automotive manufacturing.

Speaking with Bill Bodhe, SVP of sales/marketing for the Detroit Metro CVB, he explained to us how the city is coming back strong and meetings are on the rebound. Cobo Center is undergoing a $279 million renovation due for completion this summer, and the massive new District Detroit entertainment and dining neighborhood is set to open near downtown in late 2017.

The city’s swing back into profitability and prominence is already taking place. For example, Detroit more than doubled its hotel night bookings for meeting delegates in 2014 over 2013.

Following is our conversation with Bodhe about the Detroit meetings market and the rebirth of one of America’s great cities.

Prevue: Where is Detroit today compared to where it was a couple years ago?

Bill Bodhe: The Detroit experience of today and the foreseeable future is completely different than the experience of the past decade. First of all, let’s just start with the downtown marketplace itself. The perception out there is Detroit is empty, buildings are boarded up and it’s totally unsafe, and there’s nothing that could be more completely opposite from reality. Downtown and midtown Detroit are thriving business communities. Downtown has residential occupancy over 95%, so it’s almost impossible to find a place to live. There’s also a significant amount of new startup businesses coming into our market that are generating new jobs and new opportunities, spurring additional occupancy downtown.

So, downtown Detroit is absolutely beautiful and energetic, and it’s thriving with new development.

Prevue: How is it beautiful and thriving?

Bodhe: We have one of the most gorgeous riverfronts in America, and that wasn’t the case here 10 years ago. The Riverfront Conservancy received a lot of donations, and now five miles of our riverfront from Ambassador Bridge all the way to Belle Isle is beautifully landscaped. The horticulture is just awesome with beautiful flowers and all of the walking and biking trails. You have great views across the river over to Windsor, Canada so there’s no place like it in the United States. The riverfront is a thriving area with new restaurants and residential development, creating a lot of new energy in our city.

Prevue: Can you provide a status update on the convention center?

Bodhe: The renovation and expansion of our Cobo Center is incredible. Cobo had fallen upon hard times as it was managed by the city of Detroit, and of course the city of Detroit had been accruing financial difficulties for many years ending in bankruptcy. So it couldn’t put the monies in with regard to advancing the technology and keeping it at a level of quality to cater to consumer shows. Because of that, the convention center was taken away from the city. A convention facility authority was formed by the Governor of Michigan, and subsequently, a $279 million renovation of Cobo Center is about 98% complete. It will be complete by July 1 this year.

It truly is one of the most spectacular convention centers in the country. SMG was hired as the management company, and SMG has raised the standards of service, and has also renegotiated labor union contracts to make it more cost efficient and customer friendly.

Prevue: What are some other developments relevant to the Detroit meetings sector?

Bodhe: A new light rail train system is under development to run between downtown and midtown in 2016. Also, the new $650 million Detroit Red Wings hockey arena and the new 45-block District Detroit entertainment area are being developed by the Ilitch family (owners of the Red Wings), which will open in late 2017. That is going to spur significant new development activity along our famous Woodward Avenue, which was the first paved street in the United States.

Detroit has direct flights from 36 countries so we have the access, but we’ve needed a lot more restaurants and better transportation in the city, so we’ve addressed those issues.

Prevue: Who can planners pull from in Detroit for speaking engagements?

Bodhe: As we work with the various groups coming in, each of them has there own specific needs. But the one thing that each major convention that comes to town needs, whether it’s the corporate or association market, they like to have speakers coming out of the Detroit market. And we have a plethora of high profile organizations, such as Dan Gilbert with Quicken Loans, who’s done so much for our city by buying up 60 buildings. He and his staff are readily at hand to speak about Detroit and its renaissance.

It’s remarkable in the last three years since I came here the change in perception. We’re still a long way from where we want to be, but there’s such a curiosity about Detroit and what’s going on in the city. Everybody in the United States knows that Detroit is an important part of American history strictly from the automotive side. Everybody is rooting for us, and we’re now starting to set new records in occupancy and it’s just going to continue getting better. So everybody wants to know how Detroit is accomplishing this, and how we solved a very severe bankruptcy issue in 18 months. And more importantly, how we are organized to be successful in the future.

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