Traverse City tourism strong during 2021 vacation season

TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (AP) – During the 2021 holiday season, tourists flocked to Traverse City at a rapid pace. But the hospitality industry was still struggling with a bumpy road as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

“Towards the end of the summer we saw occupancy numbers similar to 2019, which was a relief,” said Trevor Tkach, President and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, “because it was a pretty disappointing start in 2021, in line with what we’re in for 2020 with the pandemic. “

The occupancy of hotel rooms before the pandemic was high in 2019. 2020 numbers were depressed due to travel and gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had some setbacks in early 2021,” said Tkach. “The Great Wolf Lodge was closed because indoor water parks were not allowed to operate. And we still haven’t run the conference business at the level we traditionally have. It took a while to get back on track this year. “

Late summer brought more tourists to Traverse City, and the rest of the year seems more optimistic for the hospitality industry, with several large events filling hotel rooms.

“Things look great,” said Tkach. “We had the Ironman 70.3 in Frankfurt. We have (NHL) Prospect training camps and Red Wings training camps. We have TBAYS Autumn Classic Soccer Tournament. And we’re also starting to see some conference business coming back. We expect a strong color season and harvest season. “

Resorts across northwest Lower Michigan are reporting a solid vacation season.

“We had a great summer,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, public relations director at Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa on the southern edge of Benzie County.

“There was a backlog of people who may not have traveled last year,” she said. “I think the vaccines have given people some confidence to travel again. Through the joint promotion with Traverse City Tourism, there were a few opportunities that helped us all round. “

The Benzie County Area Convention and Visitors Bureau was closed in February 2020, as previously reported, and Traverse City Tourism became the official marketing organization for Benzie accommodation.

“The nice thing about our business is that nature never closes,” said Lukaskiewicz. “We have an outdoor-focused business where people can distance themselves socially and lead a healthy lifestyle outside. It was definitely a good summer for us. “

Crystal, after closing like many stores in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, reopened in May 2020. The resort’s rooms didn’t fill up instantly.

“It took a while for people to have confidence in traveling,” said Lukaskiewicz. “We added the security infrastructure: from air washers to HEPA filters that we placed in public areas.”

Crystal has also adapted to the pandemic world by installing a touchless system that allows customers to purchase lift tickets. Users can purchase an RFID card that can be reloaded with lift tickets or season tickets via their home computer.

“We installed RFID gates on chairlifts for the winter (2020) that we used in the summer for chairlift rides for the Alpine slide,” said Lukaskiewicz.

Travelers flocked to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in record numbers in the first half of 2021.

“Last year set a record,” said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “And we were on the right track (in 2021) to simply blow this record away by June. Until June every month set a new record, except April – it was the second highest April. “

“But July and August were about what we averaged over the past five years. So they were lower than last year’s record highs, but they were still about the average of the last five years, which is our five greatest years visiting all time. So it wasn’t as if it had fallen to less than in the past – it just went off its record. “

July and August set records for park visits in 2020, months when trips to northern Michigan exploded as pent-up demand for outdoor recreational activities exploded after coronavirus travel bans eased, but indoor and overcrowded outdoor entertainment venues in many regions were still restricted.

“There are now some outdoor recreation and entertainment options that weren’t available last summer,” said Ulrich. “You can now go to amusement parks, you can watch live music outdoors. None of that happened last year. “

Some Sleeping Bear facilities were closed from late March to May in 2020. The campsite was closed until June 2020. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive was closed until July 2020 for construction unrelated to the pandemic.

The main attractions of many national historical sites that require close proximity to visitors, such as presidential houses, remain closed to this day, Ulrich said. However, national parks with outdoor activities are open across the country.

“It’s been an incredible year. The hard work of all employees, who have really gone through a lot of uncertainty and a lot of additional cleaning precautions, is somewhat gratifying. Lots of people love this place. “

Visitors came to northwest Lower Michigan in 2021 to play and stay.

“It’s been a fantastic summer,” said Ron Robinson, operations manager of Summerside Properties, which operate the Cambria Hotel, Best Western Plus and Comfort Inn. “We set sales records in June, July and August. And September could be the same. “

“2019 was such a busy year. It was one of our best summers in terms of hotels. But in each of these months we beat 2019. “

Summerside hotels were in full swing throughout the holiday season.

“The demand is huge as people try to find rooms and they can’t find them,” said Robinson. “The walk-in traffic is high.”

The widespread labor shortage has forced some properties that have not been able to hire enough housekeepers to reduce the number of rooms they rent.

“Chances are we could have done more business this summer if we had a bigger workforce,” said Tkach. “The hotel and tourism industries are definitely suffering from a labor shortage at the moment. We were before the pandemic. It’s definitely gotten worse. Everyone has admitted that restaurants cannot operate at full speed or at full occupancy.

“Some of our larger hotels, like the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, can’t even put all of their rooms and inventory online – because they don’t have enough staff to serve their guests. Our occupancy rate could have been higher if we had more workers to help us and more rooms available. “

There is no shortage of manpower on Summerside’s property.

“Early in the summer,” said Robinson, “we made a decision that we had to pay people more to have the best staff and to have enough staff. We have all increased our wages by about 20 percent. And then we introduced an additional bonus program: We paid every employee a bonus of USD 5 per hour, in July, August, September and through October. So if someone hires a starting wage of $ 16 an hour and gets that $ 5 an hour bonus, they’ll make $ 21. “

“It was a big expense, but you have to – you get what you pay for. We have the people we need and we have good people. “

Cambria’s restaurant has also done well this summer.

“The Reflect restaurant has done incredibly well over the past year, almost doubling it,” said Robinson.

The restaurant business was solid over the summer months of last year, he said, when people started traveling to northwest Lower Michigan because COVID-19 restrictions kept restaurants in the state closed. This year’s outstanding performance of the Reflect Bistro was a little surprise.

“That’s such a question mark,” said Robinson of the current conditions. “What will happen? How will people react? Will there be more restrictions in the future? Will people think we should travel now because we may be restricted in two months?”

“It’s not that you have a roadmap telling you what’s going to happen. Because everything is so different. “

Traverse City Tourism is a trade organization funded through a room rental evaluation. Tourism drives room rentals, but also congresses and group events. Traverse City can have excess rooms for some time, at least mid-week.

“We don’t expect the group and meeting business to get back where it was before the pandemic, and we rely heavily on this business for midweek occupancy,” Tkach said. “I think we will do well, but I don’t think that free time can make up for the losses in the group and meeting business.”

Looking ahead, Tkach is confident that Traverse City will eventually regain momentum in the meeting and group sector.

“It will come back – it will be a slow, steady climb. All the indicators we’ve seen at the national level are that it will likely take three years to get back to where we were before the pandemic, ”he said.

Recreational tourism resulted in constant demand for hotel rooms in the summer, but activity declined towards the end of August.

“I think a lot of people were afraid that the schools would be back up,” said Tkach. “It felt like people were on high alert during this period. Which, in my opinion, has had an impact on traveling to our region. “

SOURCE: Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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