Economy And Attacks Shake Up Travel Plans

    The dive in consumer confidence following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, coupled with a weakening economy, sent business at major tourist destinations across America into a tailspin.

    For a West Michigan tourism economy that’s long been built on weekend getaways and short vacations, that loss for major travel destinations could very well evolve into a new business opportunity, as travelers choose to stay closer to home and take shorter trips next year.

    The question now, however, is how to meet that opportunity.

    As they begin the early stages of preparation for the 2002 summer travel season, tourism promoters are reacting to predictions that the sluggish economy may last through the middle of next year. They are altering their marketing and promotional plans to meet the kind of business conditions and consumer moods that they haven’t seen since the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent recession. Offering more travel packages and discounts and making an effort to reach travelers who want to stay closer to home are among the strategies that many attraction operators and travel promoters are weighing for 2002.

    “We’ll probably be doing a lot of things with our approach to advertising,” said Camille Jourden-Mark, vice president and general manager of Michigan’s Adventure amusement park north of Muskegon, one of the largest and most popular tourist attractions in West Michigan.

    “It’s something we’ll definitely be taking a look at for the 2002 season,” she said.

    Tweaking marketing plans for next year may require travel operators and tourist bureaus to walk a fine line.

    On one side, they want to prepare for the expected rise in the number of spur-of-the-moment travelers who put off plans until the last minute, or those who may opt for a week at the beach next year rather than, for instance, a trip to Disney World or some other destination that requires them to drive long distances or fly.

    At the same time, the industry is well aware of the need to show restraint and sensitivity in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    “It’s affected everything,” said Laurel Nease, vice president for tourism development at The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. “There’s definitely a lot of discussion regarding strategy.”

    Strategies for 2002 will likely find root in marketing West Michigan’s communities, attractions and events toward last-minute travelers, and developing and promoting travel packages and discount programs more than ever before as a lure for travelers.

    “You need to get to those target markets in ways that just remind people that you’re here, and then when you get them here, take good care of them because everybody is a little frazzled,” said Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Visitors Bureau. “We really have to go that extra mile.”

    Michigan’s $11 billion tourism industry saw travel spending slow considerably this past summer because of the slowing economy. Business grew by only 1 percent this past summer season, down from the traditional 3 percent to 5 percent growth rates experienced annually since the mid-1980s, according to the Michigan Travel and Tourism Center at Michigan State University.

    Reflecting West Michigan’s status as a “drive-to” destination, travel bureaus report better results for their individual markets. Muskegon saw a 12 percent increase in room tax revenues this summer, said Joanne Hatch, tourism development manager for the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    Even with the economy slipping into recession, Hatch and other travel bureau directors say the West Michigan tourism industry, with its proximity to population centers such as Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis, is positioned well to hold its own in 2002, because people tend to travel or vacation closer to home during economic down times. The trend of the past decade toward shorter trips also will accelerate in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic downturn, making West Michigan a prime destination and generating greater competition for the travel dollar among communities.

    “We’re prepared to be there right ahead of the pack,” Hatch said.

    Part of the 2002 strategy for some shoreline travel promoters is to focus more on attracting travelers from within Michigan and nearby markets to visit the Lake Michigan shoreline. Saugatuck, for instance, doesn’t draw as well from some markets in the state as other shoreline communities, Fairchild said.

    “Maybe we can tap into a market that hasn’t looked at us for awhile,” Fairchild said.

    In Holland, the local visitors bureau last week launched a campaign geared specifically for the local and regional market.

    The “Run Away with Someone You Love” campaign offers special packages and discounts at Holland-area hotels that are designed to spur area residents to do something special with their families but don’t feel like driving two or three hours away, Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Sally Laukitis said. The campaign is a direct result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the steep drop in consumer spending, Laukitis said.

    “If we can put some incentives out there that say ‘It’s OK to travel,’ it will not only help Holland’s economy but be good for the overall economy as well,” she said.

    In Grand Haven, the chamber of commerce is developing a 2002 marketing theme that will focus on the area’s heritage as a resort town for families. The chamber will also gear the “Creating Memories” theme more toward travelers who drive toward or up the shoreline without making specific plans for the day or weekend, Nease said.

    The expectation is that a greater number of tourists won’t decide to go somewhere until a day or two before they actually leave, and will then rely on promotional materials they pick up at stops along the way to make their decisions.

    “We’ve been experiencing short travel horizons and we’re going to see them even shorter now,” Nease said. “Travel is going to become even more of an impulse buy.”

    As they alter marketing plans for 2002, travel promoters say they need to build plenty of flexibility into the strategies so they can change again quickly if the need arises. Uncertainty over the economy, how far it will fall into recession, and when and how fast it will recover are all unknowns that may affect business conditions and consumer spending in the near future.

    “I think we all wish we had a crystal ball. Those of us in the travel industry don’t really know exactly what to look for,” Laukitis said. “Flexibility is definitely the norm.”

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