Spring tourism: Lost cause or creative opportunity?

Twenty-five years ago this July, David and John Robert Williams snuck a float into the Cherry Royale Parade. It featured the Hay Fever Queen, "Anna Histemann," and her court riding high on a flatbed trailer full of hay. The float stopped every few minutes so the queens could sneeze in unison, and the crowd loved it!

The creative siblings and their band of merry followers had a 20-year run with their spoof floats which included the Weber Precision Grill Team from Backiard, Ohio; the Longest Human Clothesline led by the Maytag Speed Queen; the World's Longest Cow Pasture sponsored by the dairy industry (yes, one of the queens did sport plastic milk jugs); and their longest float, Half Mile of the Nile.

Each year, the brothers found a sponsor to pay for their madcap creations. They conjured up a theme, pulled together volunteer float-builders, rounded up hundreds of volunteer marchers, and came up with punalicious names for the queens.

Sadly, the fun ended in 2002 with their final, and smallest, entry: two women dressed in tennis garb as Venus and Serena seated on the back of a bright red convertible. The magnetic signs on the side of the car stated: "Definitely Not the Williams brothers!"

A "wouldn't it be cool if…" conversation probably launched the two decade run of Williams brothers floats that brought joyful laughter to tens of thousands along Front and Union streets, and happy, good-times recognition for the sponsors.

We could use a dose of the Williams brothers creativity now, not only in the National Cherry Festival, but in our springtime "shoulder season" of the tourism industry.

There isn't much going on between the final days of ski/snowmobile season and Memorial Day to fill hotel rooms, restaurant seats, and local shops. In late April we have the trout season opener followed by a short-lived and unpredictable morel mushroom harvest. However, creating a tourism event with any impact becomes hopeless when locals won't share their favorite fishing holes and mushroom spots with their own family, let along a bunch of strangers.

March and April in Traverse City will challenge the most creative among us when it comes to drumming up ideas to attract visitors. The weather is unpredictable: an outdoor event could be bathed in 60 degree sunshine, pelted with freezing rain, or covered in a mini-blizzard. Our roads are dotted with potholes and lined with ugly dirt snow. Nobody seems to know when Easter or spring break will occur from year to year, and when it does, it seems half of the town flies south.

So, do we give up on any kind of springtime tourism, or is there a Williams brothers moment of creativity waiting to happen?

Years ago there was talk about the Festival of Senses, but that would only happen every ten years. No, wait…that's the Festival of Census. The Festival of Senses has become a series of events centered on food and wine, music, and art over several weeks, but organizers moved it to autumn.

The Traverse City Film Festival (co-founded by John Robert Williams) was a great idea and instantly successful. New people came to Traverse City, spent a few days watching movies, and left behind a bunch of money. As Julius Caesar said, or so I'm told: "Veni, prodigo, exitus!" They came, they spent, they left. Any chance we can move this from the last week of July to the last week of April?

The Grand Traverse Resort and National Cherry Festival tried to heat things up last month with the first ever Winter WonderFest that included everything from ice sculptures and ice skating to an independent film festival. Hopefully this early March event grows into a long-lived tradition for locals and visitors alike.

Twenty five years ago the Williams brothers had a great idea, but instead of forgetting about it, they brought it to life. We could use that enterprising spirit to ignite springtime tourism in Traverse City. Maybe you have the next great idea. "Wouldn't it be cool if _______________?" Fill in the blank, send it back to us, and get the conversation started.

Meanwhile, where is the next generation of Cherry Royale Parade jokers? BN

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