Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 10, 2009

Bill O'Brien: Sense of urgency for tourism

Northern Michigan started to evolve as a summer getaway for the weary and wealthy not long after Henry Ford invented automotive mass production in the early 20th century.

The auto industry went on to dominate the state's business sector for decades and transformed Michigan into an economic powerhouse. Not so much for the tourism trade, although it certainly grew into an integral segment of northern Michigan's economic landscape.

Fast forward a century or so from those early days, and Michigan's automotive industry finds itself on the brink of irrelevance. More look to the state's tourism trade to take up economic slack created by the auto industry's free-fall. A growing number of former manufacturing workers find themselves in start-up businesses or service jobs.

In some ways, Michigan's tourism sector faces the same challenges as the automobile industry. Its mind-set of, "Just keep doing what we've done and the customers will show up," kept auto executives, workers and union bosses employed for years, and quite well-paid.

But it wasn't built to sustain that model. The rest of the world's auto industry caught and passed Michigan's stodgy carmakers with better products, prices and service. The world automobile industry became more competitive, but Michigan's car companies were slow to respond and lost market share they may never recover.

Will Michigan's tourism industry learn from those mistakes, or is it doomed to repeat them?

Local travel officials refer to Michigan as a "world-class" tourism product because of natural features like the Great Lakes' sandy beaches, spectacular vistas and diverse fishery. The state offers first-class golf courses, high-end resorts, scenic rivers for fishing and canoeing, and a host of unique sites for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing.

But does it also have a reputation for "world-class" service? Are there bargains out there that will draw visitors from throughout the Midwest? Does it create a welcoming environment for people of different ethnic backgrounds, or are they made to feel they stick out like a sore thumb? Are we preserving northern Michigan's unique character that makes it a special place to visit, or inching toward becoming Anytown USA?

Those answers aren't as clear.

Many in the travel industry are excited about Michigan's commitment to spend $30 million this year on an inaugural national tourism and business development campaign. It will highlight Michigan's offerings to a large new group of consumers, many unfamiliar with the diverse recreational offerings of the Wolverine state.

But promotion was never a problem for Michigan's automakers. They spent plenty on advertising and marketing, but couldn't deliver quality, value and service the public demanded.

Financial support from the public wasn't a problem, either. Communities handed out millions in tax breaks over the years to help the automakers, and today taxpayers are coughing up billions more in bailout money to keep them afloat. Likewise, Michigan taxpayers are putting up millions to boost the travel industry.

In the end, all the promotional money and other public subsidies won't mean much if an industry -- tourism or automobiles -- can't or won't deliver a quality product to consumers with plenty of options to spend their money.