Playing It Safe: Businesses prepare for summer season unlike any other
At her 88-year-old boutique hotel in Frankfort, owner Judy Remmert is preparing for a summer season unlike any other.
With guests’ comfort, safety and social distancing in mind, she’s been laying out new ways to arrange areas of the hotel inside and out – including spacing out seated dining, and adding amenities in her 17 guest rooms like mini fridges. She’s also moving furniture to accommodate dinette sets for in-room dining.
There are also heightened sanitation protocols, employee health screenings, hand sanitizer dispensers and masks – just some of the newly common changes throughout northern Michigan’s tourism industry as it welcomes customers during a world-wide pandemic.
Like others, Remmert has been trying to plan for a host of scenarios that could unfold as travelers once again move freely and – many believe – seek the open spaces, nature, experiences and smaller towns that populate northern Michigan. There’s cautious optimism, but also uncertainty over what the summer season will look like and what travelers will do and spend.
“We do expect that once things open up we’ve got the potential for a great summer,” said Remmert, whose hotel, Hotel Frankfort & Restaurant, is just two blocks down Main Street from Frankfort’s Lake Michigan beach. “But we’ve got to be prepared for both. We can’t get our expectations too high if they don’t come.”
Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, is bullish on prospects for the critical warm-weather travel season that comes as Michigan and the country potentially emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. He sees pent-up travel demand and people likely to travel in-state or regionally, within driving distances of their homes. And that’s something he believes Michigan can leverage.
“When we are finally able to travel, I’m going to be using every medium I can, every resource I can to plead with people to keep their travel in the state this year. We’re going to need to keep those dollars in Michigan to as great an extent as we can,” Lorenz said. “Do what you can to spend your travel time and money this year in Pure Michigan.”
Lorenz and others spoke with TCBN in May as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order remained in place, directing Michiganders to stay home except for running critical errands, engaging in safe outdoor activities or going to specified jobs.
The coronavirus pandemic and public and private responses swept paralysis and unknowns through Michigan’s population and economic sectors. But amid the holding pattern, Travel Michigan created a message to encourage statewide strength and unity, building on the popular and enduring Pure Michigan brand.
The Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan initiative on social media, the state’s website and donated digital billboards was “to bring us together, unify us … but also for the travel industry, which has been hit so devastatingly hard … it’s a reminder that Pure Michigan as a brand is there for them now, and will be for them in the future. This is all kind of a reminder that together we will get through this,” Lorenz said.
He said plans called for the tag line to take on an additional meaning moving forward, with a more direct message to encourage travel in the state.
In the throes of the pandemic, sending messages of hope, happiness and the unique experiences that northern Michigan can offer has been part of the path forward for many in the tourism industry. Traverse City Tourism launched a campaign evoking the happy places in northern Michigan that await visitors’ return, including a video with imagery of lakes, beaches, rivers, dunes, grapes on the vine and blossoms on trees, sunrises and sunsets. The video, closing with the message “your happy place is thinking of you too … sending you hope from Traverse City,” struck a chord, said Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of TC Tourism.
“That was the most clicked-on video ever in the history of our email distribution,” he said, adding that the idea was to offer positivity and “some signs there will be some end to this” and to instill that “Traverse City is still here, you can get to things you want to do.”
In Glen Arbor, outdoor adventure and traditional activities have been part of the messaging from recreation and retail businesses owned by Matt and Katy Wiesen, where kayak, canoe and bike rentals, shopping and other pursuits await.
“Dreaming of Glen Arbor?” was a message posted on their website. “While life has changed, we are doing our part to make sure your summer tradition of visiting Glen Arbor for fresh air adventures and quality shopping experiences will continue in a safe manner.”
Doing business will be different at the Wiesen’s Crystal River Outfitters, The Cyclery, M22 Glen Arbor and Coastal shops. Operating plans for the summer include safety and sanitation practices and moving cash registers, merchandise displays and equipment rental registration activities outside, utilizing ample space around the stores.
“When people show up on our property this summer, things will look different,” Matt Wiesen said. “We’ll really just be trying to space things out so that we can create a comfortable atmosphere for both our clients and employees.”
Wiesen said the spring’s business closures “forced us to really think outside the box to find some ways to drum up cash flow” during the down time, like virtual shopping with curbside pickup at the retail locations and letting customers know that new merchandise was arriving.
But it is the summer that generates revenue that carries the Wiesens’ businesses through other seasons and supports a year-round staff of nine, with employment swelling by about 50 at peak.
“We need our summer season to happen and when the time is right, we need to see our customers coming back. Summer is everything to us,” Wiesen said. “We are a community that relies on people coming and visiting us and we need that support for us all to continue to survive.”
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa is laying a path forward underpinned by an extensive safety and sanitation plan applying to every area of operations and items big and small, from employee training to guest services, restaurants to rooms, and health club, spa and golf.
The plan represents procedures and protocols that will be followed to keep guests, employees and community safe, including in-room sanitation and cleaning, physical distancing and masks, reduced and reconfigured seating in restaurants, bars and pool area and myriad other changes – like removing coffeemakers and other small amenities from guest rooms, to be provided upon request; single-use or disposable restaurant menus and condiments; and suspension of valet service but maintaining bell service if requested, with the bell cart sanitized after each use.
The plan applies to all levels of guest and resort business. Coronavirus impact has brought another change as the resort moves toward summer and beyond: A focus on leisure travelers in the wake of major losses of meetings and conferences that are the resort’s biggest source of business, with cancellations stretching through the end of the year and into 2021, said general manager Matthew Bryant.
“I think we’re very unique to the area because we generate most of our business from group business. We’re designed to hold 3,000 people for meetings and conferences. And so if we can’t do that, how do we go forward,” he said.
The cancellations prompted a new strategy, he said.
“What I focused on, is trying to tweak our business more toward the leisure, frequently independent travelers, and go to that strategy,” he said.
He said the resort has marketing ready to launch on multiple avenues, including social media, print, billboard and TV, and has been promoting gift cards that keep awareness among travelers while bringing in a little revenue.
“Come here for your safecation,” Bryant said. And make the resort a hub to enjoy the surrounding area, he said.
“Stay with us and then we’ll get you outdoors,” he said.
Bryant said the resort, which has kept Tower rooms open, will reopen other areas depending on Whitmer’s actions and as business dictates.
At Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, the governor’s late-April reopening of golf courses was welcome and a step toward new ways of doing business, with the resort spreading out tee times and limiting hand-to-hand contact on its Betsie Valley and Mountain Ridge courses, among changes.
As it’s moved toward opening other parts of the resort, Crystal has looked department-wide and from guest areas to internal business operations, and put in place new playbooks. Changes visible to guests include signage in the lobby and throughout the resort, reminding guests to maintain six-feet social distancing, partitions at front desks and cash registers. Staff and guests will be asked to wear masks in indoor public places. There are enhanced safety, disinfection and cleaning measures for employees and guests.
Dining operations have come under scrutiny, with the resort eyeing opportunities for takeout from its restaurants and cutting restaurant seating capacity, said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, director of public relations. Other areas of review include finding ways to boost the convenience of guest reservations and check-in, looking ahead to winter operations and potentially limiting how many skiers can ride a chair lift, and in-house changes like staggering shifts in the marketing department so all six employees aren’t in the office at once.
“We’re really examining the full aspects of our business for everything,” Lukaskiewicz said. “We’re all just trying to be flexible. I don’t think we know what a new normal is yet.”
The resort ceased most operations March 16 and as of mid-May, planned to open the 262-room hotel by months’ end. Lukaskiewicz said most groups and conferences that were booked when the pandemic hit moved to dates later this year or into 2021, and the resort has rescheduled events, like a beer and brat fest typically held Memorial Day weekend that will now be in August.
Lukaskiewicz said Crystal Mountain’s opportunities like biking, hiking, golf and an outdoor art park are likely to appeal to travelers and that the resort is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“This isn’t going to be forever,” she said. “The other thing is that traveling tends to be one of the first things that bounces back. People are online, are taking virtual tours … so people are looking for escapes.
“We’ve taken this optimistic approach that we think we’re well-positioned to bounce back when consumers are ready.”
Aiding Crystal Mountain and other Benzie County properties is a new partnership with Traverse City Tourism. In January, hotels and other lodging facilities in the county voted to join the convention and visitors’ bureau, giving a promotional boost to Benzie and adding new areas to Traverse City Tourism’s region and offerings.
For Benzie, benefits have included a “happy place” video focused on the county and access to educational tools, resources and webinars developed by Traverse City Tourism to help its more than 90 member properties prepare for getting back to business efficiently and effectively.
The alliance and support have taken on added importance in the coronavirus crisis.
“It was a great idea before, but … it went from great to essential,” said the Hotel Frankfort’s Remmert, who is on Traverse City Tourism’s board.
While Traverse City Tourism’s budget was sliced by revenue losses as hotel occupancies plunged, Tkach still hopes to advertise. There’s been no shortage of adversity: A loss of international travel happened on the tail of the Pure Michigan campaign funding cut, a situation that pre-pandemic looked like the biggest challenge the tourism industry would face.
Tkach said Pure Michigan is more than just a travel campaign and at present, “we need as much positive image out in the world as we can get.”
“Pure Michigan transcends travel,” he said. “It truly is the brand for our region, our state.”
As of mid-May Tkach was still strategizing on Traverse City Tourism’s marketing but said there will be elements that play to what travelers seek.
“I do believe a lot of those travelers will be focused on wide open space, and nature and open air, and those are experiences that the Traverse City area can deliver on,” he said. “I think we’ve got the ability to tell a story about having more of a comfort zone, and more space between you and your neighbor here.”
In addition, he said, “we want to make sure they still experience the local wine scenes, local breweries, restaurants, shops” and other attributes and “have ways to access all the things they love about Traverse City.”
Leelanau County’s Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars are among those that have been preparing. Sam Simpson, CEO of Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, an enterprise that includes the two wineries and other business lines, said that both wineries’ tasting rooms will be utilizing more space. Additional bars are being built and there will be more tables, but they will be accommodating fewer guests.
Aurora is moving to a reservation system to allow people to reserve tastings in advance “and then they can have a one-on-one unique experience with our staff,” Simpson said. Each winery will have a greeter to explain all the new options and to guide visitors, controlling the inflow of guests as well as their spacing.
“Fewer people, more of an in-depth experience,” Simpson said.
He anticipates allowing just 30% of tasting room maximum capacity at any given time, and tour groups frequenting the establishments will be limited in size. Typically, the tasting rooms are at capacity in July and August, particularly on weekends.
“We’re not under any false impression that this is going to be the most lucrative summer we’ve come across,” Simpson said.
But, he said Good Harbor and Aurora can now offer a more layered experience with plans to increase winery and vineyard tours and a greater online presence that launched early this year, with more marketing, social media and new websites for the two wineries.
Simpson said online sales “have increased in a big way,” which was fortuitous with the tasting rooms closed. Similarly, at Old Mission Peninsula’s Chateau Chantal, March and April wine shipping was double compared to normal levels for that time of year, said president and CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese.
She said increased shipping and distribution sales have been “bright spots,” as have virtual wine tastings and cooking classes that ramped up after Chateau Chantal had to shut down its tasting room and bed and breakfast operation.
Moving forward, the virtual events are likely to continue, she said.
“The idea that we can provide things virtually, means that we can reach more people,” she said. “We can provide that connection with our people, which is one of the most important things that we do.”
Tasting room revamps include altered capacity, guest protocols and a reservation system in which guests can book a time and seat for a flight of three tastings of wines. As of mid-May, Dalese said it looked like cellar tours would not readily resume, the popular Thursday Jazz at Sunset with the Jeff Haas Trio could become a virtual offering with limited in-person attendance. The bed and breakfast will see new cleaning and check-in procedures and breakfast service that replaces a communal buffet, among changes.
Dalese said Chateau Chantal “can’t wait to see everyone again” when it is safe for all, adding she is optimistic about the season ahead.
“It’s going to be different, but I’m very optimistic that people are going to want to return to the beautiful place that we have on Old Mission Peninsula, and have that experience again,” she said.
Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.