One of the ships that docks in Muskegon, the Pearl Mist, is six decks, roughly 335 feet long and holds about 202 passengers in 108 staterooms. Courtesy Pearl Seas Cruises
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) A new international campaign to attract more cruise ships to the Great Lakes is expected to benefit the tourism industry in West Michigan.
Cruise ship companies have taken notice of West Michigan, docking in Muskegon a few dozen times in the past few years for day trips on routes between Chicago and Toronto. In 2018, there were 100,000 passenger port visits throughout the Great Lakes.
The Cruise the Great Lakes campaign, meant to spread the word to cruise lines and potential passengers, is expected to increase that number for Muskegon and port cities throughout the Great Lakes region.
The campaign is a project of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, which is chaired by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Involved in the project are the states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and the provinces of Ontario and Québec, as well as multiple cruise lines and organizations, including the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce and Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Each entity involved is contributing toward the total project cost of $325,000, with the state of Michigan contributing the most, at $25,000.
Snyder directed the group to begin working on the strategy about a year ago, according to David Lorenz, chair of the campaign and vice president of Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism efforts that include the Pure Michigan campaign.
Grand Rapids-based marketing firm Stevens Advertising was contracted to carry out the campaign efforts.
Lorenz said the campaign will share the uniqueness of the Great Lakes and the “stunningly beautiful” shorelines, which can be seen from aboard the ships during much of the voyages. He said the lakes’ small towns and large cities offer tourists a “true Americana experience.”
The message should have a snowball effect from there, he said.
Many of the passengers on these ships have not visited the Great Lakes or its cities before, Lorenz said. After spending a few hours in the cities while the ships are docked, he expects many will want to return to gain the full experience.
Either way, one thing is for sure: “Like everybody always does when they’re on a cruise, they’re going to tell all their friends,” Lorenz said. “Word of mouth is the biggest influencer in travel. Before you know it, one investment pays off three and four times.”
Many of the people on these cruises are older, well-traveled people from all over the world, said Bob Lukens, Muskegon County community development director, who comes into contact with visitors that dock in Muskegon.
Now, they are ready for a more intimate experience, Lorenz added.
The Pearl Mist, for example, is six decks, roughly 335 feet long and holds about 202 passengers in 108 staterooms, each 300 to 600 square feet with a private balcony.
The ship features a library, fitness area and a glass-enclosed dining area.
Many amenities, such as fine dining and alcohol, as well as the excursions, are included in the ticket price.
Many of the large cruise ships, which can hold 3,000 people or more, often charge just a few hundred dollars for a ticket but charge extra for other amenities.
Tickets for the Pearl Mist and other similar Great Lakes cruise ships typically start at around $5,000 and can reach $12,000 or more, depending on cruise length and room choice.
“It’s like staying at a (bed and breakfast) compared to a massive hotel,” Lorenz said. “It’s just a different experience, and for a lot of people, it’s the type of experience they’re looking for.”
The ship’s owner, Pearl Seas Cruises, offers seven- to 11-night cruise options on the Great Lakes, as well as other trips in the St. Lawrence Seaway, Panama Canal and the Caribbean.
The stops in Muskegon started when the Pearl Mist docked impromptu at downtown Muskegon’s Mart Dock in 2015 after logistical issues prevented its planned stop in Holland, according to Lukens.
The ship booked the full schedule beginning the next year, he said.
Since then, Lukens said Muskegon has made efforts toward better accommodating these ships. The county invested $230,000 to repair and update the dock and landscaping at Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon. There are several trained security staff to oversee the landings.
He said the ships often get refueled and sometimes complete other maintenance in Muskegon. Sometimes, he said the chef has even stocked the kitchen with food from the farmers market or local stores.
Lukens said the passengers, plus the 70 crew onboard, have enjoyed stepping off the ship, usually for about six hours, to walk downtown and visit the museums, farmers market, shops and other establishments.
In particular, he said passengers love seeing the Hackley and Hume Historic Homes and learning about Muskegon’s history.
Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon chamber, said she has gotten to know the cruise ship tourists and has learned what interests them.
She said they often comment the area is not what they expected. The concept of large bodies of fresh water with big, sandy beaches is often new and exciting for them. She said they also comment about the cleanliness of downtown and Muskegon’s effort to preserve its history.
“We’re an American city that’s reinventing itself, and many of their cities may be reinventing themselves, so they like to share that,” she said.
The Pearl Mist has docked in Muskegon roughly a dozen times each year for the past three years. Next year, the Pearl Mist has 12 landings scheduled and Victoria Cruise Lines has five stops tentatively scheduled. The French cruise line Ponant has two stops scheduled for its new ship, Le Champlain.
While the stops themselves would likely not create a significant direct economic impact — except for the museums, which have received about 2,000 new visitors each year, Larsen said — after just a few years, there are thousands of people from all over the world who have visited West Michigan and will help spread the word.
“A town this size can’t afford to do international marketing, but the cruise ships are marketing Muskegon all over the world,” Larsen said.
Lorenz said for years, he and other port tourism professionals have been working to develop the industry, mostly in their own individual markets. Because of the finite number of ships, the majority of tourism marketing attention has been paid to other areas, he said.
This has mainly been due to challenging customs regulations when traveling in international waters between the U.S. and Canada.
At the collaboration’s request, Snyder asked customs to ease regulations and allow cruise ships to more easily travel through.
“That helped to kind of open the door to new possibilities for us,” Lorenz said.
With that, the cruise lines indicated a need for marketing assistance.
Lorenz expects the campaign to help the eight ships currently operating in the Great Lakes, as well as attract additional ships.
In 2018, eight ships operated in the entire Great Lakes region, including ships from Victory, Blount Small Ship Adventures and Pearl Seas Cruises. At least two additional lines plan to enter the region in the near future.
Lorenz said many shipbuilders are realizing the potential of the small cruise ship model and already are building more.
“They’re looking for places like the Great Lakes,” he said. “Some of them don’t know the Great Lakes, yet.”
After the website — cruisethegreatlakes.com — is finished, Lorenz said the campaign will begin inviting travel writers and other media to experience the Great Lakes, followed by placing advertising.
Over time, he said the coalition will work to help local ports be better prepared to handle the ships.
Larsen said she anticipates Muskegon eventually will be a base for continued tourism into other communities.
Larsen and Lukens agreed the community is excited to host the travelers and look forward to seeing the industry expand.
“We’re pleased to be a destination for people from around the U.S. and around the world,” Lukens said.