2017-10-19 / Front Page

Tourism Season, Fall Travel Strong

A Look at this Season’s Business, the Workforce Shortage, and the New Travel Marketing Approach
By Stephanie Fortino

This has been a good year for tourism, and fall travel is strong.

“Overall, it was a good season,” said Michelle Grinnell, a public relations spokeswoman for Travel Michigan said. “We are on par with where we were last year.”

August, in particular, did well, as occupancy at Michigan hotels has been 5% higher than the national average.

“Mackinac Bridge traffic is up for the year and ferry traffic to Mackinac Island is looking good, which is a strong indicator for St. Ignace and Mackinaw City,” said Travel Michigan Vice President Dave Lorenz. “We believe we will see a positive year for St. Ignace and the state overall. We are optimistic we will be able to beat last year’s record numbers on travel volume and spending across the state this year.”

Ms. Grinnell said the U.P. did especially well this year.

“I think, in general, the U.P. has become a hidden gem that’s being discovered,” she said.

At the St. Ignace Welcome Center, manager Michael Lilliquist agreed that people’s awareness of the U.P. is improving. At the north terminus of the Mackinac Bridge, the Welcome Center attracts about 200,000 travelers a year and, recently, they seem better informed about sites in the U.P.

“People used to ask about Painted Rock,” said Mr. Lilliquist, “but within the last five years, they know that it’s Pictured Rocks.”

Traffic to the Upper Peninsula really picked up by the second week of July. And even though the weather was cool and rainy during the summer, the Welcome Center was busy.

“Business-wise, I think we were as good as last year, possibly a small increase over last year,” he said.

Traffic across the Mackinac Bridge is a good indicator of how busy the season has been, and Mr. Lilliquist noted that each Sunday, southbound traffic could be seen backed up by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. Along US-2 in recent years, Mackinac Bridge-bound traffic can commonly be seen stretching west from St. Ignace on Sunday afternoons, sometimes for a mile or more.

Visitors from every state in the country stop at the state’s Welcome Center at the bridge, and many international travelers from places like Asia and Germany visit, as well, Mr. Lilliquist said. In the last four or five years or so, he has noticed an increase in travelers from states that had typically not visited before. He attributes that to the Pure Michigan advertising campaign.

“Pure Michigan is out there and it’s doing a great job,” he said.

The advertising campaign features experiences and places throughout the state in specific, targeted messages. This year and last year, Travel Michigan has broadcast U.P.-specific advertisements that highlight locations like St. Ignace, Sault Ste. Marie, Manistique, Escanaba, and others. Newspaper articles and social media are also used to promote the U.P.

Many locations in the Upper Peninsula have received national media attention, awards, and designations, generating national and international attention, Ms. Grinnell said. The opportunities for recreation and travel typify the experience in the U.P., and natural features like Pictured Rocks and Tahquamenon Falls have garnered broad interest.

Mr. Lilliquist said more and more people are coming here to enjoy the waterfalls and lighthouses of the U.P.

“People come across that bridge and they want to know everything in the U.P.,” he said.

At the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau, Executive Director Quincy Ranville said businesses have done well this season. The bureau collects a 5% room assessment on every hotel and motel room in the district. Room assessments are up 10% this year, which reflects a combination of higher room prices and higher occupancy.

The year started out slowly for many hotels in St. Ignace, as lack of snow this winter meant there were fewer snowmobilers coming to town. January was down significantly this year over last year, but travel started to pick up into spring. By the spring shoulder season in April and May, room assessments really started to improve, and June, July, and August did very well. As was experienced in other communities in the area, the nice warm weather in September and the many events in town led to a successful month, and travel in October has been strong, too.

“I can’t believe how full everything has been, even into mid-October,” she said.

On Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) assesses 2% on hotel rooms. While the final numbers aren’t in yet, executive director Tim Hygh said room revenue will be up again this year, following a trend over the past years.

“The official numbers for September are good, and for October, I’m hearing good things,” he said.

Mr. Hygh has heard that tourist traffic to the Island has been strong this season, and in retail, businesses are doing well or about as well as they have in the past.

“We’ve grown tremendously in September and October in the last eight years,” said Mr. Hygh.

Overall, an increase in tourism reflects an improving national economy, he said.

“The economy is still strong and consumer confidence is and unemployment is down in the major markets,” Mr. Hygh said. “When you look at those key factors, I think we’re poised well for the future.”

In Mackinaw City, Joe Lieghio and his family own several hotels and restaurants.

“Last year was our best year ever in terms of people staying and eating,” he said, “and this year was a little bit better, so really this was our best year ever.”

Having grown up in Mackinaw City, Mr. Lieghio remembers when businesses had to close in September because they didn’t have enough workers. Back then, college students were the primary work force during the shorter summer season. Now, businesses rely on international workers through the H2B and J-1 Visa programs to meet demands. Because of this extra labor help, the season could be extended into fall.

“September and October have become awesome months,” Mr. Lieghio said.

Business wasn’t affected by the cool weather in Mackinaw City this summer, Mr. Lieghio said, noting that the late spate of warm weather in September helped to boost travel.

As with businesses on Mackinac Island and St. Ignace, Mr. Lieghio has also faced a severe labor shortage that has affected business this season. The problem could be exacerbated if federal work programs are significantly changed or cut entirely. (See related story in this issue.)

The fall colors are becoming more of a draw for tourists. At the St. Ignace Welcome Center, people often ask how the colors are progressing, and Mr. Lilliquist calls all over the U.P. to get updates.

In the Les Cheneaux Islands area in Cedarville and Hessel, commerce and tourism coordinator Jerilyn Cole has noticed that visitors this fall are already planning to come back to the area for vacation next summer.

The St. Ignace Visitors Bureau also receives many calls about the fall colors. Mrs. Ranville explained that the visitors bureau staff reports to Travel Michigan and the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association (UPTRA) the percentage of trees that have started to change color and which trees are changing. Color so far this year has been behind its usual schedule, she said.

“This year is usually at peak in the first week of October, so we’re definitely behind,” she said.

Colors should be reaching their peak any day.

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