With its bankruptcy in the rear-view mirror, Detroit is gearing up for what it expects to be an influx of meetings and events making a pit stop in the Motor City. “Once we could get past it, we could move forward,” says Larry Alexander, president and CEO of Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Center, of the bankruptcy.
Negative headlines involving corruption, the struggling car industry and the local government’s financial difficulties made it difficult to bring planners in for site visits, says Alexander. But those who come will see Detroit is undergoing a renaissance. Everywhere you go, there’s a new-car smell as developers and businesses are busy restoring the city’s name. The CVB estimates the number of meetings to increase 140 percent from 2014 to 2021, including numerous faith-based events. Here’s what is turning planners’ red lights to green:
Remodeled Cobo Center
A $279 million renovation to the 2.4 million-sq.-ft. Cobo Center will be completed this year. Among the upgrades are an atrium overlooking the Detroit River, a new ballroom complete with an elevated stage and modern lighting, and an in-house television studio and media board at the corner of Fort Street and Washington Boulevard, which can be used for announcements. Food options will be upgraded to match those of restaurants and country clubs, Alexander says. The enhanced conference center can be paired with a larger facility like Ford Field (home of the NFL’s Lions) and Comerica Park (MLB’s Tigers) for large conferences.
In anticipation of Cobo’s grand revival, hotels are following suit. The centerpiece is Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, the city’s largest convention hotel, which received a $30 million upgrade this year. Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront opened in 2013 and two new boutique properties are under construction. Additionally, Aloft Detroit at The David Whitney, near Ford Field and Comerica Park, debuted in 2014.
Slow Down to Eat
One of Detroit’s strengths is its diversity—a lasting legacy of the city as a stop on the Underground Railroad. There is at least one place where people of all races and cultures meet in Detroit: Slows Bar B Q, a favorite of both Alexander and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Heidi Hagstrom, CMP, who is planning the group’s youth gathering in Detroit this summer. The portions are not for the faint of heart, and the mac ’n’ cheese is a must-try for any visitor.
Back in Time
Diego Rivera, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Rosa Parks and Henry Ford are just some of the names celebrated throughout Detroit’s museums. A major expansion in 2007 made Detroit Institute of Arts the sixth-largest arts museum in the United States. Motown Museum honors the era between 1959 and 1972 when Detroit was not only changing the sound of music but also society’s view of African-Americans. The Henry Ford Museum is lined with former presidential vehicles and includes the bus in which Parks took a stand by refusing to give up her seat. “It’s truly a step back in time,” says Alexander. It’s also a popular off-site venue for groups.
Much attention is rightly given to Detroit’s riverfront, but the Red Wings, one of the NHL’s marquee franchises, are leaving the famed Joe Louis Arena for The District. This city within a city is a 45-block development between downtown and midtown spurred by Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesars Pizza emperor who owns the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. The entertainment district, scheduled for completion in 2017, will have 21 restaurants near the $650 million arena, which has already been awarded early-round games of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The facility will also be available for concerts and conferences.
For a city known for its cars, Detroit has poured plenty of time and effort into other forms of transportation. A new 3.3-mile streetcar in the works will run on Woodward Avenue, connecting the museum district to Hart Plaza and the riverfront. It’s scheduled to be completed in late 2016. The Detroit People Mover currently runs 2.6 miles around downtown, stopping at hotels and Cobo.
Photo credit: Ryan Gobuty/Gensler; Cobo Center; Detroit CVB; Gary Malerba