Traverse City News and Events

Four Questions About Traverse City’s Summer 2021, Including: How Massive Might It Be?

By Craig Manning | May 29, 2021

A year ago, amidst cancelled festivals and record-high unemployment, the “burning questions” about summer had more to do with what wouldn’t happen than with what would. A year later, the National Cherry Festival will make its grand return. Athletes will flock to the region for the second northern Michigan Ironman. And hotels, wineries and the airport are anticipating record numbers. So here are four burning questions facing the region as summer 2021 arrives.

1. Just how big will summer 2021 be?
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Traverse City’s tourism machine kept on revving. While hotel occupancy rates weren’t quite where they would typically be, businesses ranging from wineries to golf courses ultimately reported gangbusters 2020 business.

The lesson of summer 2020 was that Traverse City is more resilient as a vacation destination than many thought. So could 2021 be the biggest tourism season in northern Michigan history?

The equation looks like this: Traverse City’s resilience as a tourist draw, plus rising vaccination rates, plus loosening restrictions, plus the return of festivals and events, multiplied by pent-up demand from cautious vacationers who stayed home during 2020. What does it all equal? Perhaps a record-breaking summer.

For his part, Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT) isn’t ready to make any bold predictions. Since last November, he says local tourism metrics have been, on balance, “brutal” – with just a few silver linings, courtesy of winter ski traffic and early spring golf. He’s crossing his fingers that the storm is over, but not betting the farm on it just yet.

“There's a lot of indicators that would lead us to believe that this summer will be a strong summer for travel,” Tkach says. “Nationally and internationally, a lot of consumer confidence and decision making is linked to the rates of vaccination and where we are with infection rates. But it appears that as vaccination percentages have climbed – especially here in northern Michigan – and as the rate of infection continues to go down, and as it gets warmer, and as we can go outside and have less potential for risk indoors, I think the environment is good for us to start recovery.”

Cherry Capital Airport’s Kevin Klein tells the Traverse City Business News he’s “very optimistic going forward into the peak summer months,” noting that the number of airline seats in the market is 22 percent greater than July 2019 -- which was Cherry Capital’s best year.

2. What is scaring health officials and healthcare workers most?
With vaccination rates in the state around 60 percent and with the COVID-19 virus still a threat to a significant portion of the population, it could mean a large-scale potential health risk for local residents and hospitals.

“Right now, our vaccination rates are slowly increasing, but we are in a bit of a race against time,” says Mike Lahey, emergency preparedness director for the Grand Traverse County Health Department (GTCHD). “As we strive to reach the 70 percent goal for immunity (in Grand Traverse County), we know that tourism has the potential to continue the spread of COVID-19 and we want our community members – especially those that are front-facing to the tourists – protected.”

“We are encouraged by the support that we have received from business owners as well as key festival leaders in our efforts to help vaccinate our community and those that choose to visit and stay here.”

3. What might change permanently?
As much as summer 2021 is shaping up to be a return to form, some things aren’t back to normal just yet.

The Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) announced in April that it will cancel its events for the second year in a row. The State Theatre and the Bijou by the Bay have not opened their doors at all since last March.

The National Cherry Festival is back and scheduled for July 3-10, but won’t look quite the same.

Interlochen Center for the Arts won’t offer public concerts in June, but is monitoring conditions as it considers hosting events in July and/or August.

Still, there’s no reason to expect most of these changes to be permanent.

But other changes could be here to stay. Paye notes that some COVID-era Cherry Festival events, such as the Very Cherry Porch Parade, were so popular in 2020 that they will be returning this year – and will likely remain a part of the festival going forward. Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye says that festivals across the country are likely to retain some form of virtual engagement option for the foreseeable future.

“I think the idea of being able to run a virtual 5K for the Washington, D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival is going forever be a thing,” she says. “Virtual runs, live streaming events, being a part of something without actually physically being there, I think some of that is going to stay around.”

And will the Film Festival eventually return in full form with multiple venues and thousands of visitors, or will Michael Moore scale back the event permanently in an effort to cut costs?

4. What are some new or emerging trends to watch for this tourism season?
The key trend for summer 2021? Transition.

Last summer, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) closed two blocks of Front Street to allow for more outdoor space. According to DDA CEO Jean Derenzy, a repeat of that closure was impossible for 2021 due to downtown bridge replacement projects.

Instead, Derenzy said the DDA is looking at other creative options to get people downtown, including installing “parklets” – small platforms that convert parking spaces into small sidewalk-adjacent public parks – and hosting new types of downtown events, such as art walks or experiences aimed at celebrating diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The DDA and the Downtown Traverse City Association (DTCA) are also looking to bring back downtown summer staples like Friday Night Live. Derenzy expects those events to move to the Open Space “or another area” this summer.

Another potential change involves the habits of tourists themselves. While many are traveling, most aren’t doing it in the same way. Tkach expects that visitors will be more deliberate about the experiences they choose to have here.

“The experiential Traverse City – the opportunity to really take your time, slow down, and enjoy every little experience – I think that has been elevated during the pandemic,” Tkach mused. “To have to get online and make a reservation before you show up somewhere, be it a restaurant or a winery, that really puts the emphasis on quality over quantity.”

Already, some local businesses are seeing the effects. According to Lori Nicholson, reservations manager for Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, the hotel has actually been beating its 2019 leisure travel revenues this spring, in spite of having fewer room nights sold. That’s because the ADR (average daily rate, a measure of the average amount of money paid per occupied room) has actually been higher, indicating that guests are spending more money on property. Instead of using the Resort as a home base to explore the region, guests are taking advantage of on-property amenities like restaurants, golf, spa, and entertainment.

This is an excerpt from a longer story that appears in the new June Traverse City Business News, available to subscribers and on newsstands Tuesday.

Photo credit: Gary Ennis

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