IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!
Dear friends and readers,
By MIKE NORTON
What a splendid summer it’s turning out to be! Great swimming (yes, the Bay has finally gotten warm enough!) and awesome weather for hiking, biking, beer-tasting and al fresco dining.
On Thursday my son Jake and I drove south of town to hike the nearest section of the North Country Trail – a beautiful four-hour walk along the high bluffs overlooking the Manistee Valley. With the stark red pines above us and that wide vista spreading out below, it was an afternoon that helped ease my constant nostalgia for the West. There were times I’d have sworn I was in the Black Hills…
Capped off by a couple of fine microbrews at Mackinaw Brewing and an excellent twilight dinner on the outdoor patio at the Towne Plaza – surrounded by lovely rose/lavender light, the crying of gulls and the murmuring of contented fellow-diners — it was the perfect day for playing tourist in my own home town.
Which brings me to some unfinished business about tourists and tourism. Last week, I laid out some of the reasons why I think the part played by visitors in the prosperity and public culture of places like Traverse City is insufficiently appreciated. At the end, I promised to discuss some of the challenges that face communities like mine, and how those can best be minimized.
In traditional, resort-based tourist towns, tourism can sometimes create seasonal deformations in the local economy. People are hired on in peak season (in fact, workers often have to be brought in from elsewhere, as at Mackinac Island) but are laid off when the season ends. That’s not good for the workers, whose unpalatable choice is to either leave town or file for unemployment benefits, and it’s not good for their employers, either. This is still true in many places – the ski towns of Colorado and the beach towns of the Gulf Coast come to mind, as do some of our own neighbors to the north.
Fortunately, Traverse City is not a resort-style tourist town these days – it’s been years since we shut down the place after Labor Day — but there’s still a long way to go. To be blunt, we don’t really need more tourists in July and August. We need them in March, April and November. So the job is to identify groups of travelers who aren’t tied to the traditional school calendar – singles, empty nesters, retirees – and persuade them that there are plenty of good reasons to vacation in Traverse City in the spring, winter and fall. (Prices are lower, it’s less crowded, and people have time to be welcoming and courteous again.)
In recent years the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau has spent a great deal of time and money promoting travel in the non-summer months (this year, 70 percent of its substantial advertising budget was aimed at non-summer travel) and that aggressive effort is showing results. Over the past 15 years, we’ve been able to increase off-peak hotel occupancy by almost 10 percent during the three most difficult months of the year. The bottom line? Our local economy has become more stable, with fewer seasonal fluctuations and layoffs, and off-season visitors get to enjoy a high-quality experience at a fraction of the cost.
- Geographic Dispersal
If seasonality is the problem of spreading the number of visitors out over time, it’s equally important to think about ways to introduce them to various locations around the Traverse City area instead of bunching everybody together in the same five or six attractions. We could accommodate twice as many visitors as we have now, without any visible difficulty, if we’d help them get more creative about the places they go. Instead of packing large crowds into spaces where they can’t help but make an obvious visual and auditory impact, we can help them find activities and adventures that allow them to interact more smoothly and pleasantly with each other, with the landscape, and with us.
Some people like to be in crowds, and we’re probably not going to change that, but we can offer them an array of experiences and destinations that take them out of the crowd to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness that most people think of when they hear the words “Traverse City.” That’s why we at the TCCVB have no problem referring visitors to the other communities on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, toward Elk Rapids, Alden and Bellaire, to enjoy their scenery, shopping and dining experiences.
- Toward a More Diverse Tourism Product
Another important part of the mix – one that also helps reduce seasonality and spreads people out to a variety of destinations – is to diversify our tourism product. It behooves us to offer as many different experiences as possible, whether that’s a wine country tour, a shopping adventure, a Beach Bums game, an Interlochen concert, a paddle down the Boardman or a fine meal at a downtown restaurant.
Obviously this is a work in progress, and it doesn’t emerge as a result of central planning, with a shadowy group of “tourism commissars” getting together to design the next Five Year Plan. It happens when individual entrepreneurs see a possible market for a kind of tourism experience and put their money where their imaginations are. Some will fail, others will succeed. Hopefully, the final result is a richer, more complex tapestry of tourism experiences. And for those of us who live here, it means a richer, more complex tapestry of quality-of-life choices.
- Going Forward Wisely
Keeping things “just the way they are now” isn’t an option. The market simply doesn’t allow us that luxury. We can look at other communities that have tried that route; the results are usually disastrous. We have to be alert to new trends, constantly improving our products and services.
Nevertheless – and this is crucial — we must avoid the trap of coming to believe that tourism is a sort of magical industry that can be endlessly expanded and developed without consequences. Any industry – whether it’s manufacturing, forestry, or the provision of public services – can be pushed to the point where it does more harm than good. When this happens with tourism (particularly in a region like ours, where natural beauty, solitude and serenity are such an intrinsic part of our identity) it’s even possible to destroy the very qualities that made us attractive to visitors in the first place.
We must take care not to overdevelop our infrastructure, or develop it so rapidly that it cannot be sustained. We must avoid becoming so obsessed with chasing the next trend that we forget and neglect our existing strengths. We have to remember who we are and where we are, and why people have always loved this place. If we try to be too edgy, too sophisticated and slick — competing with places that we’re never going to be, pursuing new consumers who are never really going to like us anyway – we risk alienating the old friends who have valued us for being what we’ve always been.
I have a favorite saying: “Dance with the girl who brought you.”
And why not, after all? Isn’t she the most beautiful girl in the room?