TRAVERSE CITY — Tourists flowed through Traverse City at a strong pace during vacation season 2021. But the hospitality industry still had to deal with a bumpy road as the COVID-19 pandemic lingered.
“Toward the end of summer, we were starting to see occupancy numbers similar to 2019, which was a relief,” said Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, “because it was a fairly underwhelming start in 2021, consistent with what we’d been experiencing in 2020 with the pandemic.”
Pre-pandemic hotel room occupancy in 2019 was strong. Numbers in 2020 were depressed because of travel and meeting restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had some setbacks at the beginning of 2021,” Tkach said. “The Great Wolf Lodge was closed because indoor waterparks weren’t allowed to operate. And we still weren’t executing conference business at the level we traditionally would have been able to. It took a little bit to get back on track this year.”
Late summer brought more tourists to Traverse City, and the rest of the year appears more upbeat for the hospitality industry, with several large events filling hotel rooms.
“Things look great,” Tkach said. “We had the Ironman 70.3 in Frankfort. We’ve got (NHL) Prospect Training Camp and Red Wings Training Camp. We’ve got TBAYS Autumn Classic Soccer Tournament. And we’re starting to see some conference business come back as well. We anticipate a strong color season and harvest season.”
Resorts throughout northwest Lower Michigan report a solid vacation season.
“We’ve 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 some pent-up demand from folks who may not have traveled last year,” she said. “I think the vaccines have given people some confidence in traveling again. There has been some opportunity with joint promotion with Traverse City Tourism that has helped us all around.”
The Benzie County Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in February 2020 was dissolved, as previously reported, and Traverse City Tourism became the official marketing organization for lodging properties in Benzie.
“The beauty of our business is that the outdoors never closes,” said Lukaskiewicz. “We have an outdoor-focused business, where people can socially distance, lead healthy lifestyles outside. It’s certainly been a good summer for us.”
Crystal, after being shut down like many businesses during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, reopened in May 2020. The resort’s rooms did not immediately fill up.
“It took a little while for people to have the confidence in travel,” Lukaskiewicz said. “We added safety infrastructure: from air scrubbers to HEPA filters that we placed in common areas.”
Crystal also adapted to the pandemic world by installing a touchless system for customers to purchase lift tickets. Users can purchase an RFID card that can be reloaded via home computer with lift tickets or season passes.
“We installed RFID gates on chairlifts for winter (2020) that we used for summer, for chairlift rides for the alpine slide,” said Lukaskiewicz.
Travelers flocked to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in record numbers throughout the first half of 2021.
“Last year set a record,” said Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich. “And we were on pace (in 2021) to just blow that record away through June. Through June, every month set a new record, except April — it was the second-highest April.”
“But then July and August were about what we’ve averaged over the last five years. So they were down from last year’s record highs, but they were still about what we’ve been averaging over the last five years, which are our five biggest visitation years ever. So it wasn’t like it fell off to less than the past — it just went down from its record.”
July and August set park visitation records in 2020, months when travel to northern Michigan exploded as pent-up demand for outdoor recreation burst out after coronavirus travel lockdowns eased but indoor and crowded outdoor entertainment venues still were restricted in many regions.
“There’s some outdoor recreation and entertainment available now that was not available last summer,” Ulrich said. “You can go to amusement parks now, you can go to outdoor live music venues. None of that was happening last year.”
Some Sleeping Bear facilities were closed in 2020 from late March into May. The campground was closed into June 2020. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive was closed into July 2020, because of construction unrelated to the pandemic.
The main attractions at many national historic sites that require visitors to be in close quarters, such as presidential homes, remain closed to this day, Ulrich said. But national parks that feature outdoor activities are open across the nation.
“It’s been an amazing couple of years. It’s somewhat gratifying, the hard work of all the staff, who really have gone through a lot of uncertainty and a lot of extra cleaning precautions. A lot of people love this place.”
Visitors in 2021 came to northwest Lower Michigan to play and stay.
“It’s been an amazing summer,” said Ron Robinson, director of operations for Summerside Properties, which operates the Cambria Hotel, Best Western Plus and Comfort Inn. “We set records for sales in June, July and August. And September could be the same.”
“2019 was such a busy year. It was one of our best summers as far as the hotels go. But, every one of those months, we beat 2019.”
Summerside’s hotels ran at full speed throughout the vacation season.
“The demand is huge, as in people trying to find rooms, and not being able to find them,” Robinson said. “Walk-in traffic is way up.”
The widespread labor shortage has forced some properties, unable to hire enough housekeepers, to cut back on the number of rooms they rent.
“There’s a good chance we could have done more business this summer if we would have had a stronger workforce,” said Tkach. “The hospitality and tourism industry is definitely suffering from a lack of workforce right now. We were prior to the pandemic. It’s definitely gotten worse. Everybody has acknowledged this, that restaurants aren’t able to operate at full speed or at full occupancy.
“Some of our bigger hotels, like Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, aren’t able to even put all of their rooms, their inventory, online — because they don’t have enough staff to service the guests. Arguably, our occupancy could have been higher if we’d had more workers to help, more rooms available.”
There’s no worker shortage at Summerside’s properties.
“Early in summer,” Robinson said, “we made a decision that we need to pay people more in order to have the best staff and to have enough staff. We increased all of our wages by about 20 percent. And then we instituted an added bonus program: We paid every employee a $5 bonus per hour, July, August, September, and it’s going to go through October. So if somebody hires in at $16 an hour starting wage, and they get that $5 an hour bonus, they’re making $21.”
“It was a big expense, but you have to — you get what you pay for. We have the employees we need, and we have good employees.”
Cambria’s eatery also performed well this summer.
“Reflect restaurant just did amazing, almost double last year,” Robinson said.
The restaurant business was solid in the summer months last year, he said, as people began travel to northwest Lower Michigan because COVID-19 restrictions kept restaurants closed downstate. So this year’s outstanding Reflect Bistro performance was a bit of a surprise.
“It’s such a question mark,” Robinson said of current conditions. “What’s going to happen? How are people going to react? Going forward, will there be more restrictions? Will people think, should we travel now, because we may be restricted two months from now?”
“It’s not like you have a road map that’s going to tell you what’s going to happen. Because everything is so different.”
Traverse City Tourism is a trade organization funded by an assessment on lodging room rentals. Tourism drives room rentals, but so do conventions and group events. Traverse City may have a surplus of rooms for some time to come, at least in the middle of the week.
“We don’t anticipate group and meeting business to be back to where it was pre-pandemic, and we rely heavily on that business for mid-week occupancy,” said Tkach. “I believe we will do well, but I don’t think leisure will be able to make up for the losses in group and meeting business.”
Looking further ahead, Tkach is confident Traverse City eventually will regain momentum in the meeting and group sector.
“It will come back — it’ll be a slow, steady surge. All indicators that we’ve seen nationally are that it will take probably three years to get back to where we were prior to the pandemic,” he said.
Recreational tourism brought consistent summer demand for hotel rooms, but activity tapered off near the end of August.
“I think a lot of people were anxious about schools going back in session,” said Tkach. “It felt like people were on higher alert around that time frame. Which I think had an impact on travel to our region.”