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The $100-million, 24-story JW Marriott Hotel Grand Rapids Opens; City  Hopes to Compete
 Better with Cities Such as Detroit and Chicago for the Smaller Meetings Market

By Greta Guest, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 16--The high-end JW Marriott hotel that opens this week in Grand Rapids should help the city boost its national convention business and give larger cities like Detroit and Chicago increased competition for smaller corporate gatherings.

The hotel and Grand Rapids got unintended national publicity this summer when an unusual marketing strategy to cater to female business travelers went down in flames.

"It put us on the map -- a hotel in Michigan getting all this attention," said George Aquino, the hotel's general manager. "We're just trying to be hospitable."

The buzz is expected to build increased interest in the hotel, which, in turn, should help to draw more convention and corporate meeting business to Grand Rapids. The city opened DeVos Place convention center in 2003, and now the Amway Grand Hotel and the JW Marriott both connect to the center via skywalks.

The city's plan is to compete better with cities such as Detroit and Chicago for smaller meetings and with places like Indianapolis, Columbus and Pittsburgh for national convention business, said Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The $100-million, 24-story luxury hotel, which is to open Friday, had planned to set aside one floor, or about 4% of its rooms, for women in response to the rise of female business travelers. But the idea crumbled under criticism. The rooms include special amenities such as a shaving stool in the bathtub for legs, ionic hair dryers to work on longer hair faster and soft chenille bedspreads. Those amenities are still there, but the hotel has now opened the 19th floor to men and women.

Competition for conventions

The downtown area will have 1,500 hotel rooms after the 337-room JW Marriott opens. Wilson said the cachet of the JW Marriott name downtown has helped the city compete nationally for conventions instead of just statewide events.

There are only 16 JW locations in the United States and 36 worldwide.

Last weekend, the city hosted a Lions Club convention for 3,200 people. It will host the 2009 Religious Conference Management Association World Conference and Exhibition that will bring about 1,400 attendees to the hotel in January 2009. It also is trying to tap into life sciences and bio-medical meetings.

"A symposium on cancer research might be 300 people, but they are coming from around the world. We are making that a specific target market and will be focused on the JW Marriott," Wilson said.

Michael Callahan, senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Grand Rapids will have a hard time competing with a city such as Detroit with its casinos, four professional sports teams, auto industry, music scene, theaters and hotel rooms.

"I think you really have to respect them for having the vision that they have as a community building the DeVos Center and putting the new hotel down there," Callahan said. "We certainly celebrate what our friends in Grand Rapids are doing, but Detroit is a superior convention town."

An international flair

The JW Marriott will function under a license agreement with Marriott. It is owned and operated by Alticor Inc., which also owns the 700-room Amway Grand Hotel.

It is styled in a youthful mix of colors -- oranges, reds, blues and greens -- to fit its modern design. The vibe is young as well. For instance, the Mixology lounge will feature an iPod DJ some nights. Each guest room was outfitted with a Steelcase task chair, which run about $1,400 apiece, and a technology pack built into the room desk to utilize the 37-inch flat screen TV as a computer monitor or gaming screen.

"It definitely has a metropolitan feel. Something you would see in a boutique hotel in Miami," Aquino said.

Aquino came up with the hotel's theme one night while driving home. He passed a sign on the street that listed Grand Rapids' sister cities and the idea struck: Why not theme the hotel decor and art on the five international cities?

The hotel contracted with Grand Rapids photographer Dan Watts, who traveled to all five cities -- Omihachiman, Japan; Perugia, Italy; Bielsko-Biala, Poland; Ga District, Ghana, and Zapopan, Mexico. He shot thousands of images that now grace each room, the room keys and elevator landings.

The hotel's floors, meeting rooms and parking deck floors carry the sister cities' names as well. Artwork in public areas is themed after the sister cities or the artists are from those cities.

The hotel hopes to land the Convention of Sister Cities International in 2009.

"Now instead of us trying to reach out to the rest of the world, we thought, 'Why don't we bring the rest of the world to Grand Rapids,' " Aquino said.

Contact GRETA GUEST at gguest@freepress.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, Detroit Free Press

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