07 May 2012

Michigan Tourist Economy Gets Boost from Early Spring

Story first appeared in The Detroit News.
The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island officially opens this weekend, signaling the beginning of Michigan's spring-summer tourism season. Its staff is already smiling wide, not only because this year marks the 125th anniversary for the iconic hotel, but because reservations for the 385-room hotel are up 4 percent over this period last year. Some summer weekends are nearly sold out.

Guests are ready to vacation and planning earlier, which bodes well for the travel industry.

So, too, are other businesses that make up Michigan's $17 billion tourism industry. The state expects a 6 percent jump in tourism spending this year, according to a forecast by Michigan State University tourism professors Dan McCole and Sarah Nicholls. That's even after last year's busier-than-expected travel season, marking a third consecutive year of a travel spending recovery.

Furthermore, average gasoline prices statewide fell below $4 a gallon during the past month, lightening the travel budget burden.

Even if fuel costs spike above the sensitive $4-a-gallon threshold, the impact will be low. People are going to vacation no matter what, they will find a way to afford it. They will cut back on souvenirs or dinners out to offset any rising gas prices.

Mother Nature will be the driving force behind a superior season. Just as Michigan's warmer-than-usual winter weather hurt the snowmobiling and ski industry this year, a rainy or cool summer can scare off the all important last minute traveler.

Research finds that 30 percent of travelers book trips six days or fewer before departure, allowing them to consult the weather forecast. If the traveler is affluent, the number climbs to 38 percent.

The weather has already helped businesses in Saugatuck, a western Michigan arts community. March's warm temperatures brought vacationers to Saugatuck earlier than usual. People began planning earlier because of the early spring.

It helps, too, that there is pent-up demand to take an escape, since many winter jaunts were canceled after lack of snow.

Michiganians also will be competing for reservations with tourists from other states.

The Tim Allen-voiced Pure Michigan ad campaign brought record numbers of out-of-state visitors to Michigan in 2011, a study by Longwoods International shows. It motivated an estimated 3.2 million trips to Michigan last year, with 1.2 million tourists crossing borders to get here.

Those visitors spent $1 billion at Michigan businesses, paying $70 million in Michigan taxes. Michigan increased the advertising budget to $12 million this year, so those numbers should be even bigger.

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