The Michigan tourism and hospitality industry has been reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
That impact did not go unnoticed by students enrolled in professor Patty Janes’ hospitality and tourism management research classes at Grand Valley State University, who reached out to statewide convention and visitor bureaus responsible for marketing their destinations.
“In my (prior) research classes, we weren’t helping (CVBs),” she said. “My research classes were conducting research about industry topics and issues and (students) were collecting data, but they were pilot research studies. That is what we would call them. We did community-based learning, but we weren’t working with organizations directly. We were working on industry issues overall, but the pandemic and COVID really forced me to look at how we could help individual destinations or organizations.”
Last semester, 55 students conducted 18 Michigan visitor destination research studies, which Janes said ranged from Keweenaw Peninsula to Houghton Lake, and from Saugatuck to Frankenmuth.
Different students worked with different visitor destinations to come up with questions for surveys that were uniquely designed for that destination. Bridget Radzicki, a sophomore and HTM major at GVSU, worked with a team of students and with Discover Kalamazoo, the CVB in downtown Kalamazoo.
“The way that we conducted our research was by creating an online survey through Survey Monkey and we sent them to Discover Kalamazoo,” she said. “They sent them to their database of past visitors via email, a popup on their website and the (survey) was also posted on their Instagram story. And through that survey, we collected information about tourism and what tourists’ travel behaviors are and how COVID-19 has impacted those behaviors.”
Janes said many CVBs don’t have the money to conduct in-depth research of their visitor pool. Dana Wagner, director of marketing and communications for Discover Kalamazoo, said her organization conducts similar research every couple of years and also long-term research with industry partners like Longwoods International or other destination analysts.
Wagner said they had 250 people respond to the GVSU survey.
“It was interesting to see that of the people who visited what types of things they did when they were here, where in particular they visited and learning a little bit more about the demographics of those visitors. Where they were coming from. Their ages. Do they have families or are they traveling as couples? Just to learn more about our visitors and their interests in general and to see what their satisfaction was when they visited Kalamazoo and what are some areas or things we can improve upon.”
The organization is funded by the county’s hotel tax, and as a result Discover Kalamazoo has had little to no revenue streaming in, which is hindering the marketing and programming used to bring people to the county.
Discover Kalamazoo usually markets companies and individuals to visit the county for meetings, conferences, and sporting and music events, but those were not allowed for most of last year. So not only were the visitors not coming, but revenue from those visits dried up, too.
Longtime associations with wrestling, skating and tennis also were put on hold.
“In 2019, we had 90 sports events that brought in 61,000 athletes and created a $26.9 million economic impact for the county,” she said. “Sporting events are a huge driver but also leisure travel, people coming to see family and friends or take weekend trips to Kalamazoo because of festivals and other things that might attract them. And also the craft beverage industry. Our craft beer is one of the main reasons people come to visit the Kalamazoo area.”
According to the research conducted for Kalamazoo, Radzicki said the students found the most popular activities for Kalamazoo visitors were dining, shopping, visiting friends and family, and visiting breweries and distilleries.
The research also showed the majority of respondents visit Kalamazoo over other areas due to the close proximity, culture and great restaurants. Trail usage in Kalamazoo had a 91% overall satisfaction rate from users.
Also, the study found that 59% of respondents’ Kalamazoo travel decisions were impacted by the pandemic. Additionally, regarding travel decisions overall, 83% of participants stated that COVID-19 impacted their decision.
Janes said her students were able to produce a written report, an infographic of key findings and they conducted a Zoom presentation with their assigned visitor destinations.
This semester, Janes said her students are helping to provide research information to 10 new Michigan visitor destinations.
“We were very appreciative of the opportunity for Grand Valley State University to work with us on this,” Wagner said. “We were able to get some great insight from this information and it was good to be able to provide this experience for the students as well, so they can learn some real-world examples.”