Warm weather and unique attractions that offset high gas prices are credited for a vibrant summer tourism season in West Michigan.
“I have the feeling we’re going to be on the cusp of a great season,” said Marci Cisneros, executive director of the Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “All the indicators are pretty strong for this past season.”
Cisneros said while a season is considered good when it has a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in tourism, this season may shape up to be great when the final numbers are seen in the fall. Cisneros said she has seen occupancy increases in reports throughout the area.
“We have seen some of our lodging properties really filling up early in the season and filling up all week long,” she said.
It is a positive sign for seasonal prosperity when people have a difficult time finding lodging mid-week, which has been the case this summer, Cisneros said.
Though there have been murmurs about gas prices affecting tourism, Cisneros said she has not seen a negative effect.
“I think people of this day and age are just determined to take their vacation,” she said. “I think it’s going to take a lot for people to shake family vacations and not make good use of their time taking off work.”
Cisneros said though the summer season is ending, Grand Haven is trying to extend it as long as possible with the upcoming Salmon Festival, celebrating the salmon migration and the natural assets of the community. The event this weekend features a gourmet salmon cook-off, wine tasting, art fair and a fresh-catch fish boil.
“We do get people that come in from out of town for that,” she said.
Jill Foreman, tourism marketing coordinator for the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her area has also experienced a great season.
“We’ve had a fantastic summer season,” she said. “The Lake Express Ferry has continued to bring a new market to our area.”
Foreman agreed with Cisneros, saying that gas prices have not hurt tourism in Muskegon, and car travelers may, in fact, have helped boost tourism.
“We’re finding a lot of the folks from the eastern part of the state or even parts of Chicago,” she said. “We’re a day trip; we’re a tank full of gas to get to us. We’re finding that our guests are staying longer, too. They’re experiencing several different areas of our county.”
The beaches are a main draw, Foreman said, especially considering the weather, but attractions such as Michigan’s Adventure, which opened a new water ride this season, have also helped bring people to the area. Muskegon’s Summer Celebration, Air Fair and Unity Christian Music Festival also attracted crowds, and the Michigan Irish Music Festival is still to come this weekend at Heritage Landing.
“Our expectations are set higher for even a better year next year,” Foreman said.
Similarly, Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said June and July projections are ahead of last year and August is looking up, as well. Laukitis said the office was swamped just before Labor Day with visitors such as a group of teachers from Detroit “doing their last hurrah” before school starts again.
While Laukitis saw many in-state tourists this summer, she said more international travelers were in evidence than in past years. Travelers from Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands were prevalent, as well as visitors from Australia and New Zealand.
Whether the visitors were international or domestic, Laukitis said she noticed more using bicycles to get around the city and to ride from Holland to Grand Haven.
Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for the Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau, said hotel occupancy has also been strong this season, as has admission to area attractions. June hotel occupancy is the highest it has been in five years, and the John Ball Zoo is having one of its best summers ever, she said, adding that in addition to regular visitors, many of those coming to Grand Rapids on business are also seeing the sights.
“We believe that we’ve been doing a good job of converting our convention customers to visitors,” she said.
The bureau has actively encouraged convention goers to visit other areas of the city through the use of electronic communications, visitors guides and printed materials that come with a daily newspaper and coupon books.
“We’ve had some big conferences this summer,” she added.
Korn said one convention, the Handweavers Guild of America, was particularly active, collaborating on a community project with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and involving venues throughout the city.
“It was a conference that really gave back to the community by it being here,” she said.
By visiting West Michigan, people are getting more choices, Korn said.
“The experience is really whatever you want to participate in,” she said. “Visitors can choose the beach, Michigan’s Adventure, dining or shopping.”
One Grand Rapids experience that Korn said is important is the cultural opportunities offered through the museums and arts venues.
“I’ve witnessed hundreds of people interacting with the Otterness collection,” Korn said of the outdoor sculptures that are scattered about the downtown area as part of the Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park exhibit.
Korn said the community makes the cultural amenities possible and adds to the vitality of the area’s tourism trade.
“The cultural art that we have here is important to our tourism product,” she said. “It gives us a product to be able to sell.”