Green Light for Summer: Local businesses prepare for what might be the best tourism season ever

The world keeps spinning.

A year ago, when the Traverse City Business News took its annual pre-summer look at what northern Michigan’s peak tourism season might bring, we were staring down a summer unlike any other in Traverse City’s history. Festivals were cancelled. Businesses were reeling from a massive economic downturn. Unemployment rates were hovering at near-record highs. The “burning questions” the TCBN asked at the time had more to do with what wouldn’t happen in summer 2020 than with what would.

A year later, the world looks dramatically different. Vaccination rates are soaring – locally, statewide, and across the nation – and the days of masking, social distancing, and other COVID-19 restrictions appear to be numbered. With that light at the end of the tunnel comes what appears to be a more “normal” Traverse City summer. The National Cherry Festival will make its grand return. Athletes will flock to the region for the second northern Michigan Ironman race. Traverse City traditions like Friday Night Live might even be back on the docket.

And yet, even as our area and the world at large mark slow, steady returns to “the way things were,” big question marks remain for businesses and consumers. Here are the four biggest, most burning questions facing the region as summer 2021 arrives.

1. Just how big will summer 2021 be?

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Traverse City’s tourism machine kept on revving. While hotel occupancy rates weren’t quite where they would be in a typical summer – and there was a slow warm up of consumer comfort along the way, from a lackluster June to a bustling August – businesses ranging from wineries to golf courses ultimately reported gangbusters business for 2020.

The lesson of summer 2020 was that Traverse City is more resilient as a vacation destination than many might have thought. So as summer 2021 approaches, many locals are wondering: Could this be the biggest tourism season in northern Michigan history?

The equation looks like this: Traverse City’s resilience as a tourist draw, plus rising vaccination rates, plus loosening restrictions, plus the return of festivals and events, multiplied by pent-up demand from the more cautious vacationers who stayed home during summer 2020. What does it all equal? Perhaps a record-breaking summer.

For his part, Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT) isn’t ready to make any bold, hyperbolic predictions about the approaching season. Since last November, he says local tourism metrics have been, on balance, “brutal” – with just a few silver linings along the way, courtesy of winter ski traffic and early spring golf. He’s crossing his fingers that the storm is over, but not betting the farm on it just yet.

“There’s a lot of indicators that would lead us to believe that this summer will be a strong summer for travel,” Tkach said. “Nationally and internationally, a lot of consumer confidence and decision making is linked to the rates of vaccination and where we are with infection rates. But it appears that as vaccination percentages have climbed – especially here in northern Michigan – and as the rate of infection continues to go down, and as it gets warmer, and as we can go outside and have less potential for risk indoors, I think the environment is good for us to start recovery.”

Tkach predicts that the outdoors factor will continue to be northern Michigan’s biggest ace in the hole as a travel destination. He noted that, last summer, part of the reason Traverse City was able to have a relatively brisk tourism season in spite of everything was the weather. Sunny days allowed for outdoor meals, outdoor recreation, and other outdoor activities, enabling friends and family to spend time with one another without risking COVID-19 exposure. Even with vaccination rates rising – and with CDC guidelines indicating that vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors unless required to do so by state or business guidelines – Tkach is betting that consumer comfort will still skew toward the great outdoors over the next few months.

“I think that travelers are still looking for wide open space, even in this quasi-post-pandemic era that we’re moving into,” he said. “I think you’ll start to see bigger cities and bigger attractions that are competition to us, they’ll start to open up soon. But I think there’s a large portion of the traveling public that’s going to want to maintain a more open-air, spread-out experience. Traverse City can offer that better than anybody because we’ve got the resources available. We’ve got the hotels, we’ve got the restaurants, we’ve got the attractions. We’ve got a pretty unique space here that people can take advantage of. So yes, we’re anticipating a strong summer.”

2. What is scaring health officials and healthcare workers most?

A big summer tourism season would mean a big summer of business for local hotels, restaurants, retailers, breweries, wineries, distilleries, and much more. But with vaccination rates in the state not yet at 60 percent, and with the COVID-19 virus still a threat to a significant portion of the population, it could also mean a large-scale potential health risk for local residents and hospitals. Unsurprisingly, local health officials and healthcare workers have some apprehension as the season approaches.

We know that the Traverse City region is a beautiful place and that people love flocking here no matter what time of the year, but especially in the summer,” said Mike Lahey, emergency preparedness director for the Grand Traverse County Health Department (GTCHD). “Right now, our vaccination rates are slowly increasing, but we are in a bit of a race against time. As we strive to reach the 70 percent goal for immunity (in Grand Traverse County), we know that tourism has the potential to continue the spread of COVID-19 and we want our community members – especially those that are front-facing to the tourists – protected.”

Lahey added that GTCHD understands the importance of tourism to the local economy, and noted that one of ultimate goals of public health officials is “to help bring (a tourism economy) back to a sustainable level, safely.” As more people flock to the community from other geographic areas, though, Lahey said the risk for COVID-19 spread will be higher – thus putting unvaccinated individuals at increased risk. Local businesses, festivals, and other tourism players are working together with health officials to control that risk as effectively as possible.

“Our concern doesn’t lie with the potential of tourism, more than it lies with putting our community in the best position to protect themselves from any potential spread that comes along with it,” Lahey explained. “We are encouraged by the support that we have received from business owners as well as key festival leaders in our efforts to help vaccinate our community and those that choose to visit and stay here. These relationships with community partners highlight that vaccination is our best and most efficient route to safe reopening and the return of these spaces and events. It’s our job to protect the health of the public as a whole while our economy benefits from tourism. We are confident that our collective efforts can achieve both of those goals.”

3. What might change permanently?

As much as the summer of 2021 is shaping up to be a “return to form” for Traverse City’s tourism economy, some things aren’t back to normal just yet.

The Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) announced in April that it will cancel its events for the second year in a row. The State Theatre and the Bijou by the Bay have not opened their doors at all since last March, and TCFF Founder Michael Moore has gone on record about the festival’s considerable woes, ranging from debt to repeated flooding in the basement of the State, caused by rising water levels in the bay and the Boardman River.

The National Cherry Festival, meanwhile, is back in action and scheduled for July 3-10, but won’t look quite the same as it did pre-pandemic. The festival has announced that some key fan-favorite events – including the air show and the Bay Side Music Stage concert series – will not happen in 2021. Other events will look different – like the DTE Energy Foundation Cherry Royale Parade, which has been converted to a “standing parade” this year. Rather than traveling the usual downtown parade route, the parade will take place at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, “where the floats will stand still and all spectators will drive their cars by to see the parade.”

Those changes are already decided, but the Cherry Festival could pivot or transform in other ways as its start date nears, depending on state restrictions or other factors.

“Our plans have changed three times since Monday,” said Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye in early May. “We just keep rolling with it. The best thing I can tell anyone right now is to continue to check our event calendar at cherryfestival.org for any updates. Because I have a feeling that is going to be changing up until the day of the festival. We are just ready to continue to adapt as we need to, as we have either permission to do something – because we have a larger capacity ability – or if we drop back and have a lesser capacity ability.”

There are other question marks for this summer, too. Interlochen Center for the Arts won’t offer public concerts or events in June, but is monitoring conditions as it considers hosting events in Kresge Auditorium in July and/or August. Fourth of July fireworks in Traverse City are also up in the air, with the city commission mulling whether issuing a permit to the TC Boom Boom Club is wise, given the likelihood of fireworks to draw large crowds.

While this summer will be an unusual one, though, there’s no reason to expect most of these changes to be permanent. TCFF, the Cherry Festival air show and concert series, the Interlochen Arts Festival: these events are likely to return in future summers when the COVID-19 pandemic is further in the rear view, even if they don’t get their time in the spotlight this year.

Other changes could be here to stay, though. Paye notes that some COVID-era Cherry Festival events, such as the Very Cherry Porch Parade, were so popular in 2020 that they will be returning this year – and will likely remain a part of the festival going forward. Paye also says that festivals across the country – not just the National Cherry Festival – are likely to retain some form of virtual engagement option for the foreseeable future.

“I think the biggest piece you’re going to see is events and festivals adapting to their guests,” Paye explained. “I think the idea of being able to run a virtual 5K for the Washington, D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival is going forever be a thing. Virtual runs, live streaming events, being a part of something without actually physically being there, I think some of that is going to stay around. We had 900 people on a Zoom call last year, all learning how to bake a cherry pie together. And the Prince and Princess program, those kids have never been celebrated more or done more together; virtually, they did more together than when they did it in person. So I think it’s forced some good change. The way we plan things is not always going to be ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’ That verbiage is not a thing anymore. We’ve been forced to reevaluate how we do everything. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

The Film Festival’s future is a complete unknown. Will it eventually return in full form with multiple venues and thousands of visitors, or will Michael Moore scale back the event permanently in an effort to cut costs?

4. What are some new or emerging events or trends to watch for this tourism season?

The key trend for summer 2021? Transition. If 2020 was the survival summer, and if summer 2022 is being eyed as the true “back to normal” summer, then 2021 is the in-between.

There are few places where that transitional trend will be more clearly on display than in downtown Traverse City. Last summer, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executed an unprecedented two-block closure of Front Street to allow for more outdoor space. According to DDA CEO Jean Derenzy, a repeat of the Front Street closure was ultimately impossible for 2021, due to logistical challenges related to downtown bridge replacement projects.

Instead, Derenzy said the DDA is looking at a variety of other creative options that could get people downtown – and outdoors – this summer. Those options include installing “parklets” – small platforms that convert parking spaces into small sidewalk-adjacent public parks – and hosting new types of downtown events, such as art walks or experiences aimed at celebrating diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In addition to new events, the DDA and the Downtown Traverse City Association (DTCA) are looking to bring back classic downtown summer staples like Friday Night Live. Derenzy expects those events to move to the Open Space “or another area” this summer, due again to the logistical challenges of closing Front Street in the midst of downtown bridge construction. While the return of Friday Night Live isn’t a guarantee just yet, Derenzy said there is a lot of energy behind the idea as a way to support local businesses and start getting the community together once more.

Speaking of established events finding new homes in 2021, the biggest might be Ironman, which is moving to Frankfort after a one-year berth in Traverse City in 2019. The 2019 race was praised by participants, placing in the top 10 of numerous categories in the 2019 Ironman Athlete Choice Awards. However, controversy among locals over the closure of certain roads for the competition ultimately led to a change of venue. The race is scheduled for September 12.

Another big element of the post-COVID transition are the changing habits of tourists themselves. While many people are traveling in spite of COVID-19, most of them aren’t doing it in the same way that they used to. In addition to a continued focus on the outdoors, Tkach expects that visitors will be more deliberate about the experiences they choose to have in northern Michigan – a shift that could also affect how tourists spend money at local businesses.

“The experiential Traverse City – the opportunity to really take your time, slow down, and enjoy every little experience – I think that has been elevated during the pandemic,” Tkach mused. “To have to get online and make a reservation before you show up somewhere, be it a restaurant or a winery, that really puts the emphasis on quality over quantity. It’s not about how many things you can touch or get to while you’re on vacation anymore. It’s about slowing down and enjoying each experience. And from the business side, what that translates to is, as customers spend more time in an establishment, they learn to love it and they tend to spend more money while they’re there.”

Already, some local businesses are seeing the effects of those changing consumer habits. According to Lori Nicholson, reservations manager for Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, the hotel has actually been beating its 2019 leisure travel revenues this spring, in spite of having fewer room nights on the books. That’s because the ADR (average daily rate, a measure of the average amount of money paid per occupied room) has actually been higher, indicating that guests are spending more money on property. Instead of using the Resort as a home base to explore everything northern Michigan has to offer, Nicholson said guests are taking advantage of on-property amenities – restaurants, golf, spa, and entertainment – and spending more of their vacation time in and around the hotel.

While trends and plans are forming, though, summer 2021’s transitional status also means that just about everything is subject to change. As such, Tkach thinks that many of the summer’s defining moments or events could ultimately prove to be the ones that aren’t on anybody’s radar heading into June.

“What I’m witnessing is a lot of thoughtful discussion going on, to try to get events online as quickly as we can, in a safe way,” Tkach told the Business News. “So, if June isn’t really feasible, is July? Is August? Is September? I think there are event producers in northern Michigan and across the state who are looking very closely at the pandemic and trying to figure out when they can turn everything back on. When can they do their event? There are people talking about doing shows, concerts, things that we haven’t traditionally had on the calendar, and probably events in other venues that we haven’t traditionally seen in Traverse City. There’s an expectation that once we are given the green light to do events, there’s demand already waiting there, and there are a lot of producers who are ready to do what they do best, which is put on a good show.”

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