BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY — A family from Spain was vacationing in Chicago when they noticed city buses running around the city's Michigan Ave. and Loop areas draped in wraps featuring pictures and headlines touting Traverse City. It looked so good that they changed their plans, extended their stay in the U.S. and showed up at the Traverse City Visitor Center during the peak of summer tourism.
They stayed for eight days.
Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau President Brad Van Dommelen told that story during Tuesday night's annual meeting of the CVB at Great Wolf Lodge. It's one real-life anecdote behind the message Van Dommelen brought to members: 2012 has been a record year for tourism here, and the CVB's advertising targeting people who don't live in Michigan is paying off.
In fact, data from an international tourism research firm shows key tourism benchmarks are up. According to Smith Travel Research, room occupancy as of Oct. 31 was 60.96 percent here compared to 58.9 percent statewide and 63.2 percent nationally. In Traverse City, the average daily rate per room was $117.90 — the national rate was $106.36 and $84.08 for the state. Revenue per available room was $71.40 in Traverse City, well over the state figure of $49.52 and $67.18 for the nation.
Van Dommelen credits a 3 percent increase in room assessments that took effect in April 2011 — from 2 to 5 percent — and generates close to $5 million annually as a game changer. The assessment allowed the CVB to expand its marketing to focus on residents outside of Michigan.
Alex Mowczan, president of Summerside Properties LLC, which owns the Comfort Inn, Best Western and new Cambria Suites in Traverse City, said his properties have seen the results.
"When I bought the Best Western back in May of '01, we had probably 75 to 80 percent (of guests were) in state," he said. "Now we're down to 49 percent in state.
"So for the first time for our properties, out-of-state spending has eclipsed in-state spending and that's great because that's out-of-state money being spent in Michigan. And that's not just the hotels, but those tourists are going to buy dinner downtown, shop and support all those local businesses."
The CVB's advertising budget has jumped by 350 percent in the past two years and includes a partnership with Pure Michigan. Paid ads exceeded $3 million for 2012, which includes print, TV, radio, billboards, video on large screens in New York City's Times Square and those wraps on the Chicago buses. Seventy-five percent of the money is now channeled into campaigns targeted at other states and countries.
But even as the numbers of tourists from outside of the state are up, the region has seen an increase in in-state visitors.
"It's sort of the best of both worlds," Van Dommelen said. "We've been able to increase the number of Michigan residents coming to Traverse City as well as the percentage of out-of-state visitors."
Mowczan said having the money to reach national and international audiences makes all the difference.
"Before we were so limited in our resources to market Traverse City," he said. "We could only do the states typically around us. Now we can blast it — tell the world about how beautiful Traverse City is."
The CVB is debuting a new winter ad in the next week or two, and will continue to concentrate on creating more business in the spring and fall "shoulder" seasons. Other areas of focus going forward include international markets, amateur and youth sports events, outdoor recreation, social media and digital marketing, Van Dommelen said.