Hazy Days: Wildfire Smoke, Inflation Issues Bring Uneven Summer For Traverse City
By Craig Manning | Sept. 4, 2023
A rollercoaster: That’s how Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT), describes the region’s summer 2023 tourism season. On one hand, northern Michigan was plenty busy for much of the past three months, with events like the Bayshore Marathon and the Interlochen Arts Festival seeing some of their biggest successes since before the pandemic. On the other hand, everything from national inflation trends to unprecedented air quality issues made summer 2023 a weird one for the Grand Traverse area.
To mark the end of the traditional “Memorial Day to Labor Day” summer sweet spot, The Ticker touched base with Tkach and a range of other local leaders to build our annual summer report card.
The Overall Tourism Report
“In total, I would say the summer was successful,” Tkach says of local tourism. “But it had some strange anomalies and some rollercoaster demand patterns that I would classify as atypical.”
What were those anomalies? One was the aforementioned question of air quality, prompted by wildfire smoke from Canada that routinely made its way to parts of the midwestern and northeastern United States. Though not a constant issue, there were days and weeks this summer where a heavy, smoky haze settled over northern Michigan, sending air quality ratings into the “Unhealthy” range and putting a damper on typical outdoor summer activities. Between the smoke and some other “bad weather days in northern Michigan” this summer, Tkach wonders whether Traverse City might have been lower on tourists’ “must visit” lists than usual.
“We know bad weather has a pretty negative correlation with travel, especially for in-state travelers who can make decisions last minute,” Tkach tells The Ticker. “Any deterrent will minimize overall demand or the potential for it.”
Tkach also notes that the entire domestic travel industry was facing shifts in traveler behavior this summer, many of which were felt by the local hotels TCT represents. “Nationally, we know that trip durations are down on average, and overall, total spending might be a little bit down as well,” he explains.
Contrary to most assumptions, Tkach says the peak pandemic summers of 2020 and 2021 were actually extremely fruitful for Traverse City’s tourism machine. Beautiful weather brought travelers – especially in-state folks – flocking to the region to experience its outdoor attractions, and local resorts broke records for things like golf traffic. Additionally, Tkach notes that those years saw “a lot of people escaping to northern Michigan who had a lot of discretionary income.” Between mixed weather and a handful of economic factors, this summer was a different animal.
“Honestly, there's more challenges this year than there were in the past two years,” Tkach admits. “Which sounds really counterintuitive, because one might think COVID was actually a deterrent for travel. But it wasn't for northern Michigan. So, 2021 was far more consistent than this year. 2022 was far more consistent. 2023, with the economy, with inflation, with people's savings dwindling, I think those things definitely had an impact on consumer confidence and decision-making.”
The result of the anomalies, Tkach says, was one of the most unpredictable summers he’s spent working in local tourism to date.
“There were midweek days where traffic seemed extremely strong, and then there'd be a weekend day that would come off soft,” he says, theorizing that customers were either grabbing lower-rate deals during the week or hunting for better weather where they could get it.
Despite the rollercoaster season, Tkach says there were some good things. One example? He heard less from local hoteliers this year about staffing issues, after several years where short-staffing was the top concern among local hospitality businesses. Tkach points to several factors to explain the shift, from more properties investing in employee housing to “strong utilization” of visa programs that bring foreign workers to local hotels. He also says teenagers are “starting to get more engaged in the workforce again” for the first time since COVID, which is helping businesses in the service industry.
When asked to give a final grade for this summer’s local tourism performance, Tkach settles on the same mark he gave last year: B+.
“For the full calendar year, I’d say we’re going to be a lot closer to an A, because we’re starting to see more meetings and conferences come back, and I do believe we'll see a strong fourth quarter,” he says. “But it was definitely a yo-yo summer, and I’d say with all the the challenges we have with the economy, with inflation, with consumer confidence – and with no film festival, too – we’re still in the B+ range for summer specifically.”
Festivals and events
Despite the “yo-yo” nature of this summer’s tourism, a handful of marquee local events still saw easily their most successful years since before the pandemic.
According to the Traverse City Track Club (TCTC), for instance, this year’s Bayshore Marathon was in many ways the biggest in the 40-year history of the event. The race clocked a record number of finishers across its three races (6,124) and saw four of its six course records fall. Additionally, three runners in this year’s marathon race – including the top two men and the winning female –posted times on the Bayshore course that qualified them for the Olympic Trials.
It was also the biggest post-pandemic summer yet for the Interlochen Arts Festival. Per Brent Wrobel, executive director of Interlochen Presents, the 2023 series consisted of 17 concerts and sold approximately 50,000 tickets. Four of the 17 concerts were total sellouts (Styx, Train, Lindsey Stirling, and Brandi Carlile) while two others (The Beach Boys and a double-header of The Four Tops and The Temptations) “came very close.”
Lodging and camping
One area where wildfire smoke did have an impact on northern Michigan tourism this summer was camping. According to the Michigan DNR’s Stephanie Rosinski – who serves as park supervisor for the Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park – the campground was “still super busy” overall, but was “down just a little from last year.”
“In 2023, from April 1 to August 28, we sold 28,279 nights of camping reservations and cabin or lodge rentals,” Rosinski says. “In 2022, we had 28,569 nights. We might have been affected slightly due to air quality concerns. I would say we’re down about 1 percent overall.”
Meanwhile, short-term rentals continue to be a durable part of northern Michigan’s tourism equation. According to Haven Thorn, who handles communications and public affairs for Airbnb, the company recently released new data tabulating each state’s most popular destinations for family travel. Michigan’s top family destination for Airbnb bookings this summer? Traverse City.
Even with the wildfire smoke issues, the popularity of the Boardman Lake Loop Trail powered a plenty-busy summer for TART Trails, which tracked 642,813 trail counts across the six trails in its network, per Communications Director Kate Lewis. TART also hosted 22 events, sold 228 bikes at its Recycle-A-Bicycle Bike Swap, and had 156 volunteers who collectively recorded 2,205 hours of work on the trails.
Similar to last year’s summer report card, we asked four new local restaurants to grade their first summer in operation.
Crocodile Palace: “We give this first summer an A,” the Crocodile Palace team – brothers Patrick and Michael Evans and sous chef Ryan Corbin – told The Ticker in an email. The Sichuan takeout restaurant opened its doors at 124 Cochlin Street this past January. “Thank you to everyone that we see over and over coming back, and everyone that has expressed how happy they are that we’re doing what we are doing,” they added.
Loco Boys Brewing: With no labor challenges to speak of, steady traffic all summer long, and strong customer feedback for its food, beer, and staff, Loco Boys Brewing earns an A for its first summer in business, per owner Mike Mohrhardt. Beyond a robust summer performance for Loco Boys itself, Mohrhardt also tells The Ticker he’s “super happy to report” that customer behavior was at an A-grade level as well – a surprise after multiple summers where rude, aggressive customers were a recurring problem for local restaurants and bars. “Knock on wood this continues!” Mohrhardt says.
Archie’s Social House: This past May, restaurateur Jon Petrie traded his Archie’s Food Truck for a brick-and-mortar location on Lake Avenue – previously occupied by Benedict, and before that by Patisserie Amie. Petrie gives the first summer of brick-and-mortar business a B+, saying that, while Archie’s “did have some staffing issues,” he and his team ultimately “had a blast this summer” serving customers who “were very kind and understanding as we worked towards a better business flow.”
Glendale Burger Shop: Another recent food truck graduate, Glendale Burger Shop opened its doors in the old Silver Swan spot on South West Bay Shore Drive in early July. Owners Bray and Brittney McCabe say the ensuing summer was an “absolute A” for them in terms of letter grade, noting that their restaurant has been embraced by locals and has enjoyed a rate of return customers “significantly higher” than what they had at their old food truck, Glendale Ave. “Our only staffing issues were caused by us being busier than we ever expected and not being prepared for the volume of customers we had,” they add. On that front, the McCabes are looking forward to a slightly more relaxed fall, which they hope will allow them to “round out the menu by adding a few more items.”Comment