BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS firstname.lastname@example.org
— TRAVERSE CITY — Attendance at last weekend’s Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival jumped by 40 percent — and that’s not counting outdoor activities, officials said.
“We had 16,000 ticket admissions and that is a 40 percent increase over the previous festival” in 2011, said Deb Lake, executive director of the Traverse City Film Festival, which put on the event with the National Cherry Festival. “We had several events that sold out and good houses at almost everything.
“InsideOut Gallery, which had local and Michigan comedy, improv and some fringe stuff, was packed almost every night.”
Even more people attended outdoor activities on Front Street, part of which was closed to traffic and transformed into a winter playground, said National Cherry Festival executive director Trevor Tkach.
The events, which included everything from games and races to laser light shows, drew thousands of participants and enthusiastic posts on the comedy festival’s website. “This is all so COOL’n,” “I will say it again, I love Traverse City” and “Thank you for all the fun on Front. My kids and I had a blast tonight!” read some.
“Having free activities for families without a doubt was a home run and added what many referred to as the ‘magic’ in the festival,” Tkach said. “The sledding hill, the ice skating rink and the Ferris wheel were going nonstop for three days.”
The four-day festival, Feb. 14-17, increased traffic at some downtown businesses like the Grand Traverse Pie Company at Park and Front Streets.
“Saturday was a huge impact for us,” said general manager Jason Parks, whose store also offered a “make & bake” pie event for kids. “We sold almost 22 gallons of hot chocolate and almost 50 chicken pot pies. We saw a lot of new faces, a lot of people you could tell were seeing our menu for the first time.”
Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doug Luciani said he can’t speak to the economic impact of the festival alone, but that it, along with other February events, helped contribute to a “great month” for area businesses.
“There’s no numbers, however, most of the hotels in Traverse City were either at full occupancy or almost full occupancy last weekend,” he said. “The auxiliary benefit is that they weren’t just staying downtown. They went skiing, they (did other things in the area).”
At Cherry Republic on Front and Cass, just outside the outdoor activity zone, people came in mostly to get warm, said manager Samantha Byrd.
“We would love it if they closed our block, too, next year and held activities in front of our store. I think it would have been an even bigger, better event.”
Lake said festival officials already are looking ahead to next year and want input and feedback from downtown merchants and area residents.
“Expanding on Front Street is definitely something to look at,” she said, adding that the street offers both charm and relative protection from the cold winds off Grand Traverse Bay. “I think our concept of keeping everything concentrated on Front Street was a good one and something we want to do again.”
She said officials may also look at the length of the festival but likely will keep it on Presidents’ Day weekend.
“We have a lot of great things we want to continue and build on next year,” she said. “We need to keep in mind that we’re asking volunteers to work outside in the cold.”
Besides expanding the event and offering more for families, Tkach said the only thing he’d do differently is start telling people about the festival sooner.
“Being able to go from a store to out on Front Street on the Ferris wheel to a comedy show to restaurants was amazing, but I don’t think everyone got it,” he said. “Now that the word is out, this has the opportunity to be a bigger event.”