Tourism experts predict good year for travel


Experts are forecasting a 3 percent increase in the number of travelers to Michigan and a 6 percent hike in how much they are spending. ©

Travel is expected to be on the rise again in Michigan for 2013 as consumer confidence grows and gas prices remain steady.

“We really projected positive growth in the number of people visiting the state and the amount that they are spending, somewhat similar projections to last year,” said Sarah Nicholls, associate professor of tourism at Michigan State University.

“What we think we are seeing is the beginning of a period of sustained, steady growth in the industry.

“2010 and 2011 were sort of the recovery years, so some of the percentage increases in terms of things like occupancy were really big just because they had fallen so much in the previous two years. But I think what we are entering into now is, hopefully, a long period of sustained, steady growth.”

Nicholls and 10 other tourism experts worked together to analyze data and develop projections for 2013 travel, which were presented recently at the Pure Michigan Governors Conference on Tourism and Travel, held in Detroit.

The advisory team is projecting a 3 percent increase in the number of travelers to Michigan and a 6 percent increase in how much they are spending.

Gas prices are one indicator Nicholls pointed to for predicting 2013 will be a good year for Michigan’s travel economy.

“We’ve seen, so far, relatively steady gas prices,” she said. “Gas prices only went up 4 percent in 2012 but, for context, in 2011 they went up 26 percent. … People have gotten used to the prices and they are willing to travel given those prices. As long as those prices stay relatively steady, I think for now gas prices are not going to be a major issue for us.”

Additionally, consumer confidence is returning.

“I think definitely consumer confidence is increasing, so people have more confidence in keeping their job and a steady income, and they’re definitely getting back into the idea of spending money on discretionary items like travel.”

Weather is the big unknown in Michigan, but 2013 provided good weather for winter sports enthusiasts, and another dry, hot summer like 2012 would definitely encourage Michigan travel.

Locally, Experience Grand Rapids expects the city also will see an increase in travelers.

Local hotels are seeing continued growth in revenue, according to Janet Korn, Experience Grand Rapids’ vice president of marketing. Year-end hotel revenues for 2012 in Kent County were up 11 percent over 2011. For January through March 2013, revenue is trending 7 percent higher than 2012.

“We are predicting that 2013 will end the year 5 percent ahead of last year's record high,” Korn said.

“We believe there are several items contributing to that success. This year we are expanding our marketing efforts with the Pure Michigan campaign. A new Grand Rapids Pure Michigan commercial will air nationwide throughout June, and Grand Rapids is represented on the homepage as one of five statewide national partners. This added exposure has already led to 300-plus percentage growth of referral traffic to our website from

“In addition, the arrival of Southwest Airlines in August, the strong local vibe, healthy convention attendance, culinary and beer tourism popularity, ArtPrize and LaughFest success, and the strong business community all help to impact tourism activity.”

For a few years “staycations” became a growing trend as travelers opted to take their vacations at home, becoming tourists in their hometowns and saving money on gas, airfare and hotels. Staycations may be expanding to regional trips, visits to other parts of the state, or traveling beyond the home state.

“We are seeing increased shorter trips by nearby markets — Lansing, Traverse City and Flint/Saginaw,” Korn said.

“We hope that the rising profile of Michigan and the success of the Pure Michigan campaign will be enough to keep residents at home because we don’t want our Michiganders to be leaving the state to go vacation in other places,” Nicholls said.

“Hopefully, we can keep the Michiganders here and we can attract more and more out-of-state travelers because obviously they are bringing the new money that creates the largest economic impact.”

Nicholls said Michigan is a perfect fit for one growing trend, in particular: touring based on a particular theme, such as cultural venues, historical attractions or wineries.

“People are less interested in sitting still in the same place for a week,” Nicholls said.

“If they are going to a destination, they want to get out and explore it and do some traveling around. In this state we are really blessed with a variety of different touring or trail options. We have cities with substantial numbers of cultural attractions that make nice linear trails, and then of course all of the wine and agricultural tourism, the breweries.

“There are great opportunities up and down the state and across the state to tie together different communities around themes, whether it’s history or wine or food or lighthouses — all of these resources that we have that could be tied together into nice driving tours.”

Korn pointed out that Grand Rapids is especially well positioned for the touring trend.

“The downtown provides a sophisticated, clean, safe and inviting place to explore, and nearby we have plentiful agriculture and recreation and are only 30 miles away from the Lake Michigan shoreline,” she said.

“In addition, beer tourism — exploring craft beer trails — is growing in popularity, and our breweries are reporting more out-of-town visitors. Additional proof (includes) two articles in the Chicago Tribune in the past nine months.”

Kent County is among the top five counties in the state for tourism, which includes both business and leisure travelers. The other four counties are Wayne, Saginaw, Oakland and Grand Traverse. Wayne County, with Detroit as its county seat, garners the most tourism, receiving about 25 percent of all tourism spending each year.

“We know that about a quarter of our spending is related to business travel and about three-quarters to leisure,” Nicholls said of tourism across the state. “Business travel has been relatively steady, but leisure is increasing.”

“The No. 1 reason people travel continues to be to visit friends and relatives,” Korn noted. “The more the local community knows about our destination, the more likely they will be to encourage others to visit.

“This, combined with the advice people accept via social media, is vitally important to our success as a destination. The more locals think Grand Rapids is cool, the more their friends and relatives will want to visit.”

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