Leelanau tourism: Many businesses left without a voice or choice

The Leelanau Peninsula is one of Michigan's jewels. Just ask anyone who lives there. Those who visit marvel at its beauty and unique character.

Yet the Peninsula's tourism based economy has been challenged in recent years.

The reason?

The Leelanau Peninsula lacks leadership in the tourism industry. While there are several individual efforts and Chamber-based programs that have been successful, there is not a collaborative approach to market the Leelanau Peninsula as a destination.

A few years back I assembled a group of tourism stakeholders on the Leelanau Peninsula for discussions on creating an innovative approach to marketing the "tourism goods" the area has to offer. Those discussions resulted in the Leelanau Tourism Initiative-a fresh approach to marketing tourism. The Initiative is modeled after other successful rural tourism destinations in the United States, Europe and Australia.

The Leelanau Tourism Initiative is not a Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). In fact, others and myself believe that the current CVB structure in Michigan is not suited for rural tourism destinations such as the Leelanau Peninsula.

CVBs are lodging-based marketing entities. Revenues come from room assessments on their guests. The Leelanau Peninsula has a limited number of lodging properties, meaning a collective CVB on the Peninsula would generate little revenue.

There is an existing Sleeping Bear CVB in Glen Arbor Township that has just four lodging members, with the Homestead being the anchor property. Because of CVB laws in Michigan, smaller properties (under 10 rooms) are not invited to be part of the establishment process. They may voluntarily join as long as the other members will allow them. At the Sleeping Bear CVB, they have chosen not to allow the smaller properties to join, essentially giving the four larger properties an unfair marketing advantage.

To further penalize small properties, because Glen Arbor Township has a CVB, they are prohibited from voluntarily joining other area CVBs. So who is going to represent them in the tourism marketplace? Why should their fellow lodging operators have the upper hand with an annual budget of $100,000 that is funded by the visitor, not the property?

To further complicate the CVB issue on the Leelanau Peninsula, if Sugar Loaf Resort ever reopens it would be a member of the Traverse City CVB, since Centerville Township voted to join Traverse City before Sugar Loaf closed. So, now there is one CVB representing one township, another CVB representing another township and no CVB representing the rest of the Peninsula.

Since Michigan CVB laws don't allow properties under 10 rooms to be part of the process several Leelanau Peninsula, townships do not have properties large enough to vote in a CVB or vote to join an existing property. So who represents them? Why should properties in neighboring townships be afforded the opportunity to create a CVB while others are not?

Because a CVB is a lodging-based organization, Michigan law requires its focus to be on its lodging members. Other contributors to the tourism industry are left without a voice or a choice. They are at the discretion of their local CVB as to whether they will be part of any marketing efforts.

Why? Certainly lodging facilities are an important aspect to the tourism industry. Why should they alone have the opportunity to pass on an assessment to their customers while other tourism stakeholders are not?

It seems that more players should have a seat at the CVB table. With a struggling state economy and limited funds at the state level for tourism marketing, expanding CVB membership would increase budgets for marketing and promotion, as well.

But CVB and lodging associations have challenged any discussion of change in the past. They have taken a protective approach to maintaining the status quo of their existence.

So, the likelihood of Lansing listening to anything innovative is unlikely.

This opens the door for creative approaches like the Leelanau Tourism Initiative that will take an inclusive approach to marketing tourism on the Leelanau Peninsula.

To date more than 200 interested parties have participated in the discussion process for developing an Initiative.

This approach has worked elsewhere, most notably in rural Western Northern Carolina where 10 small communities (populations ranging from 120 to 2,500) banded together to create Handmade in America. The result is a $122 million annual infusion into their economy from visitors. Organizers of this effort recently visited the Leelanau Peninsula and after a tour (which was on a rainy November day) they concluded the "Leelanau Peninsula is a goldmine."

The Leelanau Peninsula has all the assets to attract visitors. While lodging is limited, neighboring Traverse City has plenty and Leelanau Peninsula has several lodging offerings that fit feel of the Peninsula, such as B & B and cottage rentals. The unique small towns of the Leelanau Peninsula along with the wineries, lighthouses, islands, Fishtown, The Sleeping Bear Dunes, the numerous galleries and cultural attractions, the lakes, beaches, farms and the colorful characters that operate the small shops and restaurants make the Leelanau Peninsula one of Michigan's prime travel destinations.

The Leelanau Tourism Initiative hopes to provide the necessary leadership to present the Leelanau Peninsula as a year-round destination. In the works are both a Leelanau Art Trail to promote the numerous galleries and artists on the Peninsula and the Leelanau Food and Farm Trail to showcase the agri-tourism aspects of the Peninsula.

The Initiative has completed the research phase and now is moving into implementation. The Initiative looks to be up and running with programs this fall. To learn more, visit www.leelanau.com/tourism or contact me at racoates@charter.net or (231) 883-5624.

Rick Coates spent the past seven years marketing the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail. He works as a journalist, project facilitator and event planner. BN