Smitten With the Mitten

We love our Michigan vacations, but thanks to the Pure Michigan campaign and a thawing economy, a growing number of out-of-state visitors are joining the crowd
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress

From its microbreweries and wineries to its windswept dunes, Michigan is grabbing the national spotlight — and with it a new generation of tourists are streaming in to discover its charms.

While official visitor spending numbers for 2012 aren’t in yet, industry folks say that the early spring and hot summer, a thawing economy, and the Pure Michigan marketing campaign combined to make last season the best the state has had since 2004.

Hotel occupancy was at an eight-year high, as was seasonal employment (about 200,000 jobs). Popular attractions like the Henry Ford in Dearborn drew record crowds, and visitors found new ways to appreciate old standbys.

In anticipation of an even better tourist season this year, businesses such as wineries, inns, and airports are adding staff, expanding their facilities, and joining forces to maximize their exposure.

All the efforts are adding up to economic revitalization — and pride — locally and statewide.

New niches add to the growth

From foodies to helmet-hating bikers, there are a lot of “niche” markets attracting crowds.

Modern Craft Winery in Au Gres, in the northeast lower peninsula, is quadrupling production to prepare for an influx of visitors to the new Sunrise Side Wine and Hops Trail. It’s one of several wineries on the 200-mile route that stretches from Standish to Alpena, and includes Hillman, West Branch, and — for those heading northward — Cheboygan. The trail officially opened last year.

If, as expected, the trail becomes a hot spot this summer and people flock there in droves, Sunrise Side’s Tom Reif will face a bit of a dilemma: They could sell all their wine by July. “So what do we do?” he asks. “We’re making wine as fast as we can.” The trail opened last year, and features three microbreweries, shipwreck tours, a riverboat cruise, casino, and elk viewing at Thunder Bay Resort.

Across the state at the posh Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, where room rates run between $275 and $400 in high season, a snowy winter bumped up business by 20 percent in January and February, making it the agri-resort’s best winter ever. Managing partner Don Coe is preparing for what he expects will be a banner year, hiring seven new employees to staff its winery, tasting room, and café.

“Heritage-based tourism, farm- and food-based tourism — all are adding to the business we’re having in the area,” says Coe. “When we started 15 years ago, we were 70 percent in-state visitors; today, we’re 70 percent out-of-state. I’m very encouraged because those are people who are making us a destination, and it’s something special for them.”

If Coe had his druthers, he’d expand his inn. But local zoning laws prohibit it. So instead he’s expanding his kitchen facilities to accommodate more diners who aren’t guests at the inn. He’s also adding value to the tourist experience by partnering with local businesses to offer packages that might include spa services, hot-air balloon rides, and personalized historic tours.

The Upper Peninsula is reaping the benefits of the state’s promotional efforts. Last winter, the Marquette area was a popular hot spot for snow bikers, boosting the fortunes of ski resorts and brewpubs.

‘‘We’re the only place in the Midwest [that’s] grooming mountain-bike trails this winter so snow bikers can ride them,” says Pat Black, director of the Marquette Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This opened a new avenue for tourism for us.”

While Marquette doesn’t actively court the biker crowd, motorcyclists are proving a boon for local businesses, Black says. With the repeal of Michigan’s helmet law, they come up to feel the Lake Superior breeze in their hair.

Taking advantage of the buzz

Michiganians still make up the majority of tourists in the state. But sharp increases in visitor spending year over year — $15 billion in 2009 to $17.7 billion in 2011 — is due largely to outsiders being exposed to the Pure Michigan ad campaign, says Travel Michigan spokesperson Michelle Begnoche.

The return on investment — $25 million a year on TV, Internet, outdoor, radio, and print ads — was $4.90 on every marketing dollar spent in 2011.

And the buzz generated by the campaign has been priceless.

Last August, viewers of ABC’s Good Morning America voted the Leelanau Peninsula’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the most beautiful place in America — ahead of Grand Teton National Park; Aspen, Colo.; and Cape Cod.

Traverse City, not far from Sleeping Bear Dunes, gets an awful lot of good press, too. Last year, Draft magazine listed it in its top three “emerging beer towns,” and National Geographic ranked TC as one of the top 10 places to visit in the summer.

That attention helped attract more than 2 million visitors last year.

Traverse City is a partner in the Pure Michigan marketing effort — it kicks in money — but it also invests heavily in promotion efforts outside of Michigan that have clearly paid off: In 2006, 87.5 percent of visitors came from within the state; last year, 74.2 percent hailed from parts outside.

“We focus on Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis, New York, Houston, Wisconsin,” says Brad Van Dommelen, CEO of the Traverse City CVB. “We’re just spreading our wings a bit to build more awareness.’’ It appears to be working: Air service out of the Traverse City Airport has increased, with new direct routes from Newark, Cleveland, Denver, Atlanta, and possibly Texas.

Ontario — specifically, Toronto — might be the new frontier for the Pure Michigan campaign, if the Legislature approves an additional $4 million toward it in the next fiscal year.

Canadians like to travel, and their currency is pretty much on par with ours. They’re nearby, too. That’s good for businesses such as golf courses, especially those that have visibility through partnerships with Pure Michigan.

“Canada is a key market,” says Kate Moore, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Owners Association. “Those properties in southeast Michigan will see a significant impact, as will [northern] resorts. If we’re spending [advertising] money in Toronto, partner courses will definitely have an advantage.’’

Room to grow

Opportunity for growth comes with its challenges.

Traverse City, Van Dommelen says, is working at bringing in tourists during the “shoulder seasons,” before and after high summer. The goal is to reduce the number of seasonal layoffs and to ease the burden on the city’s 4,800 hotel rooms, which are virtually full in July and August.

In Detroit, where hotel occupancy broke a record last year, the lack of public transportation has led to target promotions of regional “destination districts” like Dearborn (family-friendly), downtown Detroit (the “D”), and northern Oakland County (parks and shopping).

The Woodward Avenue stretch from downtown to New Center is practically begging for a ground-rail system, says Mike O’Callaghan, executive vice president of the Detroit Metro CVB. ‘‘We’d like to see bicycle rental … to go from location to location, where you could drop off a bike and pick up another bike,” he says.

Even a place like Mackinac Island, a tourist attraction par excellence, is hampered by a transportation shortage. Getting people to the island as winter progresses becomes more of a challenge, but there are restaurants and a grocery store open all year, says Bob Benser, president of the Mackinac Island CVB. The truly intrepid traveler will rent a snowmobile in St. Ignace and do the three miles over the ice bridge to get to the island.

Lofty Goals
The 2012-2017 Michigan Tourism Strategic Plan is the product of a year’s worth of brainstorming that involved CVBs, academics, and businesses. They laid out a path for growth for the state’s tourism industry over the next five years. Some of the goals highlighted in the plan:

>Increase visitor spending from $17.7 billion in 2011 to $21.5 billion in 2017
>Improve Michigan desirability as a tourist destination from 28th in 2010 to 15th or better by 2017
>Increase the Pure Michigan campaign’s presence in international markets
>Increase Canadian tourism to Michigan from 1.5 million visits in 2011 to 2.15 million by 2017
>Increase return on investment in Pure Michigan campaign from $4.90 in 2011 to $6 by 2017

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