Traverse City News and Events

"Feels Like We're Still In The Summer": Fall Tourism Boom In Traverse City

By Craig Manning | Oct. 12, 2020

Tourism in and around Traverse City is very strong heading into the fall, with most local hotels reporting better-than-expected numbers for September and October. While people are still traveling to Traverse City, though, there are notable differences in their habits and demographics from past years – factors that continue to make things unpredictable for area hoteliers.

“It feels like we’re still in the summer season,” says Jonathan Pack, director of operations for Superior Hospitality, which manages three hotels – Brio Beach Inn, Pointes North, and Sleep Inn – along the East Bay US-31 strip. “We’re 100 percent full every single night.”

Other area hotels report similarly positive numbers. Caroline Rizzo, public relations manager for Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, says the property’s 585 rooms were completely sold out this weekend. “We’re seeing numbers through September and October that we don't always see,” Rizzo tells The Ticker.

It’s not just weekends, either: Erin Ernst, director of communications for Boyne, says that all three Boyne properties – Boyne Mountain, Boyne Highlands, and Bay Harbor – have seen “an uptick in mid-week travel…compared to what we would normally see in the fall.”

The surprisingly high demand comes amidst ongoing challenges posed to hotels by the COVID-19 pandemic, including cancellations of major fall events like the Iceman Cometh Challenge and the Red Wings training camp at Centre Ice Arena, as well as an ongoing pause on most business travel and conventions. Mark Fischer, director of sales and marketing for the Park Place Hotel and Conference Center, notes that the hotel is already 80 percent booked for the first week of November, even without the Iceman bike race that normally fills those rooms.

Speaking to The Ticker in August, Traverse City Tourism (TCT) President and CEO Trevor Tkach predicted that typical autumn draws like fall color, harvest, and wine tasting would keep tourist traffic strong on the weekends, but expressed worries that mid-week travel could be light without group bookings to fill area hotel rooms. That hasn’t proven to be the case – at least not yet: Pack says his hotels have been full even during the mid-week stretches, and both Park Place and Grand Traverse Resort have seen positive responses to discounts and deals that add value for weekday guests.

When asked why this fall might be exceeding expectations, Rizzo points to a few different factors. The weather, she says, has been an obvious boon: The Resort hit its monthly budgeted revenue for golf in the first week of October and is on track to have its best October ever on the links – the cherry on top of a golf season that had already shattered “pre-9/11” records for the property. Rizzo also suspects that many Michiganders are taking advantage of the added flexibility afforded by remote work and remote school, and are using those opportunities to explore destinations within driving distance.

TCT is also helping boost business by offering “Fab Fall” deals at dozens of participating hotels around the region. As part of the promotion, guests receive a digital passport on their mobile devices that includes offers from restaurants, wineries, shops, and other local attractions.

One trend Pack has observed this fall is a shorter average booking window between reservations and guest stays. More travelers are calling day-of or week-of to ask about room availability, rather than planning their visits weeks or months in advance.

“I always do a forecast out the month,” Pack says. “At the beginning [of October], I only had maybe 20 rooms on the books [for the first weekend]. Five days later, when the rooms actually happened, we were 100 percent full. That’s for a 74-room property, so we picked up 50-some rooms and in less than five days, which is just unfathomable. I've never seen that type of surge in such a short amount of time.”

The last-minute bookings are great for business, but Pack says they have also made it difficult to plan for staffing. Staffing is also the major challenge that Fischer is facing at the Park Place. Group bookings, Fischer says, are starting to bounce back – mostly with smaller executive board meetings of 10-15 people, but also with a few bookings for corporate holiday parties. The challenge in bringing these types of events back is finding the staff to work them.

“As we look ahead to our Christmas parties, we’re already kind of maxed out, only due to our lack of staffing available,” Fischer explains. “We could take more business, but first we’d have to hire 15-20 people. So that’s where we’re struggling.”

Group bookings are starting a comeback at other area hotels too, which could point to a more promising off-season than many predicted. For instance, while Rizzo says holiday party bookings are “definitely not where they’d normally be at this time of year,” the Resort has started larger gatherings again for other types of corporate events.

“We’ve had a few groups in now over 150-200 people,” Rizzo notes. “Those events have shown what we’re able to do with a hybrid format, with indoor-outdoor settings, with socially distanced rooms, or with dividing people up into multiple rooms. We can have a small group of people make a presentation from one room and then simulcast it into three other rooms, just to be able to space large groups out. We've had great testimonials and reviews and response from those groups, and that's helped other groups feel much more confident in some of the meetings that they have planned coming up in the New Year.”

As for what leisure travel might bring as the weather gets colder, Pack confesses that he’s not sure what to expect.

“I just don't know what the behavior will be,” Pack says. “Maybe people are getting away now and aren’t going to come up in the in the winter, for fear of not being able to go outside. I don't know how the pandemic is going affect winter travel yet. And even further, with the Supreme Court ruling regarding [the governor’s] executive orders, we're not sure how that's going to affect everyone either…maybe they feel like they can go to more of the towns in southern Michigan that have been under stricter practices during COVID than us.”

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