TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan. – Tourists passed through Traverse City at a steady pace during the 2021 holiday season. But the hospitality industry still faced a bumpy road as the COVID-19 pandemic lingered.
“Towards the end of the summer, we were starting to see occupancy figures similar to 2019, which was a relief,” said Trevor Tkach, President and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, “because it’s been a rather disappointing start in 2021, in line with what we had experienced in 2020 with the pandemic.
The occupancy rate of hotel rooms before the pandemic in 2019 was high. Figures in 2020 have been depressed due to travel and meeting restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“We had a few setbacks at the start of 2021,” Tkach said. “The Great Wolf Lodge was closed because the indoor water parks were not allowed to operate. And we still weren’t running the business of the conference at the level we traditionally could have done. It took a little while to get back on track this year.
The end of summer has drawn more tourists to Traverse City, and the rest of the year looks more upbeat for the hospitality industry, with several big events filling hotel rooms.
“Things are looking great,” Tkach said. “We had the Ironman 70.3 in Frankfurt. We have a Prospects (NHL) training camp and a Red Wings training camp. We have the TBAYS Fall Classic Football Tournament. And we’re starting to see conference business coming back as well. We anticipate a strong color season and a harvest season.
The resorts of Northwestern Lower Michigan are reporting a strong vacation season.
“We had a great summer,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, director of public relations at Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa, on the southern edge of Benzie County.
“There was pent-up demand from people who may not have traveled last year,” she said. “I think the vaccines gave people some confidence to travel again. There was some opportunity with a joint promotion with Traverse City Tourism which helped us all around.
The Benzie County Area Convention and Visitors Bureau was dissolved in February 2020, as previously reported, and Traverse City Tourism has become the official marketing organization for accommodation properties in Benzie.
“The beauty of our business is that the outdoors never closes,” said Lukaskiewicz. “We have a business focused on the outdoors, where people can distance themselves socially, lead healthy lifestyles outdoors. It has certainly been a good summer for us.
Crystal, after being closed like many businesses in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, reopened in May 2020. Rooms at the resort did not immediately fill up.
“It took a little while for people to feel confident in traveling,” Lukaskiewicz said. “We have added a security infrastructure: from air cleaners to HEPA filters that we have placed in common areas. “
Crystal has also adapted to the pandemic world by installing a contactless system allowing customers to purchase lift tickets. Users can purchase an RFID card which can be recharged via a personal computer with lift tickets or season passes.
“We installed RFID barriers on the chairlifts for the winter (2020) that we used for the summer, for the chairlift rides for the alpine slide,” Lukaskiewicz said.
Travelers have flocked to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in record numbers throughout the first half of 2021.
“Last year set a record,” said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “And we were on the verge (in 2021) to beat that record until June. Until June, every month set a new record, with the exception of April – it was the second highest April. “
“But then July and August were the average for the past five years. So they were down from last year’s records, but they were still pretty much what we’ve been doing on average over the past five years, which is our five biggest years of visiting. So it wasn’t like it fell off unless the past – it just fell off her record. “
July and August set park visitation records in 2020, months in which travel to northern Michigan exploded as pent-up demand for outdoor recreation erupted after coronavirus travel closures relaxed, but overcrowded indoor and outdoor entertainment venues were still tight in many areas.
“There is now outdoor recreation and entertainment that was not available last summer,” Ulrich said. “Now you can go to amusement parks, you can go to open-air concert halls. None of this happened last year.
Some Sleeping Bear facilities were closed in 2020 from the end of March to May. The campground was closed until June 2020. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive was closed until July 2020, due to work unrelated to the pandemic.
Major attractions at many national historic sites that require visitors to be nearby, such as presidential houses, remain closed to this day, Ulrich said. But national parks that offer outdoor activities are open across the country.
“It’s been two incredible years. It’s kind of rewarding, the hard work of all the staff, who really went through a lot of uncertainties and a lot of extra cleaning precautions. Lots of people love this place.
Visitors in 2021 have come to Northwestern Lower Michigan to play and stay.
“The summer has been amazing,” said Ron Robinson, COO of Summerside Properties, which operates the Cambria Hotel, Best Western Plus and Comfort Inn. “We set sales records in June, July and August. And September could be the same.
“2019 has been such a busy year. It has been one of our best summers for hotels. But, each of these months, we beat 2019. ”
Summerside hotels have been operating at full capacity throughout the holiday season.
“The demand is huge, like from people who are trying to find rooms and can’t find them,” Robinson said. “Walk-in traffic is on the rise. “
The widespread labor shortage has forced some properties, unable to hire enough housekeepers, to reduce the number of rooms they rent.
“There’s a good chance we could have done more business this summer if we had had a stronger workforce,” Tkach said. “The hospitality and tourism industry is currently suffering from a labor shortage right now. We were before the pandemic. It’s definitely got worse. Everyone recognized this, that restaurants cannot operate at full speed or at full occupancy.
“Some of our larger hotels, like the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, aren’t even able to upload all of their rooms, their inventory, because they don’t have enough staff to serve customers. Arguably our occupancy rate could have been higher if we had had more workers to help us, more rooms available.
There is no shortage of labor at Summerside properties.
“At the start of the summer,” said Robinson, “we decided that we had to pay people more in order to have the best staff and to have enough staff. We have increased all of our salaries by approximately 20%. And then we set up an additional bonus program: we paid each employee a bonus of $ 5 per hour, in July, August, September, and it will last until October. So if someone hires at a starting salary of $ 16 an hour and they receive that bonus of $ 5 an hour, they earn $ 21. “
“It was a big expense, but you have to – you get what you pay for. We have the people we need and we have good people.
Cambria’s restaurant also performed well this summer.
“The Reflect restaurant did an incredible job, almost double it last year,” said Robinson.
Foodservice activity was strong in the summer months of last year, he said, as people began to travel to northwestern Lower Michigan as COVID-19 restrictions kept restaurants closed in the upstate. The exceptional performance of this year’s Reflect Bistro was therefore a surprise.
“It’s such a question mark,” Robinson said of the current conditions. “What’s going to happen? How are people going to react? In the future, will there be more restrictions? People will think, should we travel now, because we could be limited in two months? “
“It’s not like you have a roadmap that will tell you what’s going to happen. Because everything is so different.
Traverse City Tourism is a professional organization funded by evaluation on accommodation rentals. Tourism is stimulating room rentals, but also conventions and group events. Traverse City could have a surplus of rooms for a while, at least mid-week.
“We don’t expect group and reunion activities to return to where they were before the pandemic, and we are relying heavily on this business for mid-week occupancy,” Tkach said. “I think we’re going to do well, but I don’t think hobbies can make up for the losses in group and reunion business.”
Longer term, Tkach is confident Traverse City will eventually regain its momentum in the meetings and groups business.
“It will come back – it will be a slow, steady push. All the indicators that we have seen nationally are that it will probably take three years to get back to where we were before the pandemic, ”he said.
Recreational tourism led to a steady summer demand for hotel rooms, but activity slowed down towards the end of August.
“I think a lot of people were worried that schools would resume the session,” Tkach said. “It was as if people were on higher alert at that time. Which I think impacted travel in our region.
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