Is Michigan the beer state?

Collaborative marketing key in development of Grand Rapids beer tourism; second consecutive Beer City USA title for Grand Rapids demonstrates a true collaborative marketing effort and boosts area tourism effort.

For the second straight year, Grand Rapids is able to claim itself as Beer City USA.  This is according to an online vote held by Charlie Papazian, home-brewing legend and beer writer/advocate.  The poll is a yearly competition developed by Papazian, which is based on online voting.  Last year, Grand Rapids tied with then three-time reigning champion Asheville, NC,  but this year Grand Rapids was able to take home 27,000 of the 50,000 votes and win the title in a landslide.  It speaks volumes to the ability of the city’s breweries, local businesses, convention and visitor’s bureau (CVB), local government, and its citizens to rally around the promotion of the city’s craft beer scene.

Several events were held leading up to the vote to help promote the city as a beer destination and celebrate the breweries that make it possible.  Experience Grand Rapids (EXGR), the city’s CVB, developed a two-weeklong event titled “Cool Brews, Hot Eats (CBHE)” that highlighted local beer at the city’s restaurants and bookends the yearly Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark.  The campaign was given the Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Promotions at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism, mainly for its collaborative nature.

The idea began with basic concept of pairing delicious local craft beer with beer inspired or infused dishes from local restaurants.  EXGR was unsure of the level of participation and support while developing the idea of CBHE, and was blown away when 59 restaurants submitted applications to be involved in the promotion.  Once the menus and beer pairings were in place, the local media joined the effort by promoting the two-week long event and highlighting the beers and dishes being served at restaurants throughout the area.  Janet Korn, VP of Marketing for EXGR explains the reasoning behind this promotion; “Inventive cuisine, farm fresh ingredients and craft beer are helping to define Grand Rapids as a travel destination. Experience Grand Rapids is actively engaged in promoting these experiences to perspective visitors.”

Along with the local media promotion, EXGR took advantage of an already strong social media presence by creating event Facebook pages, utilizing smart phone check-in features to run promotions during the event, and featuring blogs from local participants, chefs, and brewers.  These collaborative efforts carried over into the recent Beer City USA voting: Grand Rapids Mayor Heartwell led a pub crawl campaigning for patrons to place their votes.  Not to be outdone, several of the local brewers collaborated on a limited edition beer release called “55555513”.  The name comes from the alcohol content (5.5 percent), international bitterness units (55), and release date (5/5/13).  Ten local breweries created their own versions of the Rye India Pale Ale to commemorate the kickoff of the Beer City USA poll voting.

All of this collaboration appears to be paying off for the Grand Rapids and West Michigan economies.  Several of the participants in the CBHE event increased sales 20-60 percent compared to the same weeks in 2012.  EXGR reported 12,000 page views of the CBHE webpage just during the two week promotion period.  EXGR will continue to highlight local food and beer throughout the remainder of 2013 with the City’s restaurant week, scheduled for August 14-24.  Korn explained the phenomenon by saying, “Visitors like to eat out and experience local culture while traveling, beer and culinary tourism encompass both”.

Michigan State University Extension has educators working to help other areas around the state use their own unique food and beer/wine industry to create tourism marketing campaigns and assist in creating collaborative environments for local stakeholders.  To find an educator in your area visit the Find and Expert Page and search for “community food systems”.