School bells will ring later this year: But will guzzling pumps drown out the pitter-patter of tourists?

REGION – With so much focus on gas prices, it's easy to overlook the potentially good news for tourism-related businesses: the new post-Labor Day school start.

"Extending the season only a week or two will have surprisingly large positive impacts on businesses' bottom lines," says Dr. Don Holecek, professor and director of the Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center at MSU.

The legislation, passed last fall, applies to all public and charter schools and intermediate school districts, though some districts won't need to comply with the new law until 2007 due to teacher contracts and other employee contracts still in effect. It's estimated that the later school openings will generate an additional $132 million in direct tourist expenditures and $10 million in total state tax revenues.

But while the intent of the legislation was to generate extra revenue for the industry and the state, Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) President Brad Van Dommelen feels it's still too early to make hard and fast predictions about any impact on this area.

"This gives us the opportunity to get people thinking again about summer lasting until Labor Day instead of sometime in the middle of August, and that should translate into at least a couple of extra weeks," he said. "But the truth is, we don't know what will happen until we've been through it at least once. And it may even take a few years to condition people to thinking differently before we see any dramatic results."

AmericInn Motels & Suites General Manager Nick Trahair agrees, saying he doesn't expect to feel the full impact of the legislation for another two to three years. But that won't stop him from promoting the idea now; every guest this summer will receive a flyer reminding them about the later start.

"We have to get people in the groove that, hey, school isn't starting until after Labor Day," he said.

Trahair admits the promotion is currently taking a back seat to the campaign to offset higher gas prices.

"Our whole 'specials' plan got a big shakeup when gas prices went up," he said. "So, we've been doing promotions with gas stations in town. "

To minimize any negative effect higher gas prices might have on summer tourism, the Traverse City CVB rolled out a "Pump Up Your Summer" promotion in April. It provides a $25 Speedway gas card to anyone who books a stay of four nights or more at any of 43 participating hotels, motels or resorts.

To help popularize the plan, the Bureau installed a special toll-free reservation line (1-800-714-0051) and a web page at www.pumpupyoursummer.com. As of May 16, the toll-free line had netted 216 inquiries and resulted in 201 room nights booked. The promotion has also captured a "huge amount of media attention" for Traverse City, said Van Dommelen, which has resulted in a big jump in inquiries even among people who aren't necessarily calling about the gas program.

"What I find striking is how this promotion has generated a lot of buzz, a lot of conversation and a lot of interest in Traverse City as a destination," he said. "People are hearing about what we have here, and they're thinking about us as people who are eager for their business and want to make it convenient for them to get here."

According to Holecek, northwest Michigan tourism spending and volume will be about the same as the state forecast: up 4-5 percent and 1-2 percent, respectively, over last year-though he admits regional projections are not as firmly-based as statewide projections.

Carol Davidson, who directs both the Benzie County Chamber and the Benzie Visitors Bureau, is expecting a solid summer, based on calls the organizations have been receiving and reports from area businesses.

"Many lodgings are filling up quickly for July and August. We're conservatively planning on an increase of two percent in overnight stays and hoping that it will be higher."

Crystal Mountain Resort in Benzie County will once again be offering its "Last Splash Labor Day Weekend" package, which features a number of family activities and one last chance to splash in their Park at Water's Edge.

But the jury's still out as to whether the post-Labor Day school start will make a big splash in the resort's revenue pool.

"Just because school may start later, commitments to fall sports, whether school-sponsored or not, may still deter families from taking a vacation in the later part of August/over Labor Day," said Director of Communications Joan O'Neill. "Still, it's a good thing for our industry and, we hope, for families too." BN

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