Sunset On Summer: Traverse City's Summer 2022 Report Card
By Craig Manning | Sept. 18, 2022
This coming Thursday (September 22) marks the first official day of fall, which means it’s the last weekend of summer in Traverse City. Was the summer as busy and successful as many predicted it would be? Or did issues like high gas prices, inflation, and local staffing shortages stifle the season? The Ticker touched base with multiple local businesses and tourism leaders to find out.
The Overall Tourism Report
Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, says summer 2022 “was a good year, no doubt about it” when asked about the overall tourism picture. But he also calls it a “strange summer” and notes that business was “actually down in some ways compared to last year.” That’s due mostly to national and global factors that were far outside of local control.
“We get reports from groups like Longwoods International, which started doing consumer sentiment surveys related to tourism and COVID when the pandemic kicked off in 2020,” Tkach explains. “They’ve kept that going, so they were still monitoring what people were thinking about travel [in 2022]. And what we saw [in those surveys] were some blips throughout the summer, related to gas prices and inflation. Those things definitely had a negative impact on some of the travel decisions consumers were making.”
“What we found is that, now, Traverse City is perhaps a little bit too far of a drive for some people,” Tkach continues. “Where a tank of gas during COVID would have been an affordable way to escape the big city, now you saw that a couple tanks of gas to get north were maybe a little bit too expensive for some consumers.”
Tkach says consumers were being particularly “conservative” with travel decisions early in the summer, when gas prices were at their peak. As costs came down a bit, tourism heated up – just not to the record levels that Traverse City’s tourism market was hitting in 2018 and 2019, and sometimes not even to 2020 or 2021 numbers.
“[Hotel] occupancy was so good in the summertime in northern Michigan during COVID that I can't say that we saw whole lot of growth this year,” Tkach explains. “Inflation has driven up rates at hotels, so it definitely appears that it was a good summer [in terms of revenues]. But I don’t think that we tracked at the same rate as inflation. So, if the growth we did see was directly correlated with rate, and occupancy was fairly level year over year – or maybe even down in certain parts – I would speculate that hotels and restaurants and attractions weren’t seeing any more growth than any other sector, relative to inflation.”
When asked to give a final letter grade for the summer 2022 tourism season, Tkach settles on a B+, pointing to the returns of events like the Traverse City Film Festival, the Bayshore Marathon, and a full-fledged National Cherry Festival as big silver linings. Depressed travel activity due to gas prices and inflation land on Tkach’s “cons” list, though he singles out staffing as the region’s biggest tourism roadblock. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 27 percent of all Michigan jobs lost during the pandemic were in the leisure and hospitality sector – accounting for about 17 percent of the industry’s total workforce.
“Those people and jobs just don’t come back quickly,” Tkach says. “And because of that, there may have been more demand [for travel to Traverse City] that we just couldn’t accommodate this year. My suspicion is that, had we been at pre-pandemic staff levels, we probably would have had a more successful summer.”
Lodging and Camping
Local lodging and camping numbers reflect much of what Tkach observed this summer.
At Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, for instance, Public Relations Manager Caroline Rizzo says the property tracked 43,469 room nights between May 1 and August 31. That’s up substantially compared to the past two summers (37,497 room nights in summer 2021 and 23,285 in the summer of 2020) but is still well below pre-pandemic numbers from both summer 2019 (47,830) and summer 2018 (49,668).
One area that did continue to see growth? Golf. The pandemic brought record-breaking business to The Resort’s trio of golf courses, including 42,194 golf rounds last summer (compared to 35,728 rounds during summer 2019). 2022 shattered those records again, with a final count of 46,331 golf rounds throughout the four-month summer season.
When asked what’s holding The Resort back from pre-pandemic hotel traffic, Rizzo points to group business. Nationwide, conventions, trade shows, and other similar events have yet to see a full return to pre-COVID levels. “We’re expecting pre-pandemic levels to return for our Fiscal Year 2024,” Rizzo says of group bookings, which in the past have accounted for some 60 percent of The Resort’s business.
As for Tkach’s feeling that high gas prices and inflation were curbing travel habits, end-of-season takeaways from the Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park may offer some evidence. In fact, Park Supervisor Stephanie Rosinski says state parks throughout Michigan saw dips in demand across the board this summer.
“We were very busy this summer, but our numbers were down just a little bit from last year – and that was also across the whole state,” Rosinski says, noting that 2021 “was a record year” for the Traverse City State Park.
Earlier this summer, The Ticker heard from a variety of established restaurants about the challenges they were seeing with rude customers, staffing shortages, supply chain hurdles, inflation, and other issues. But what about the newer restaurants that have opened their doors in the past 12-14 months? We asked four members of that “freshman class” to share their takeaways from their first full summer season in business.
Artisan: Artisan, which opened last August inside Delamar Traverse City, had an “A+” season, according to Delamar Director of Food and Beverage Alex Truck. “We had a fantastic summer in Artisan, growing our local customer base and significantly strengthening our culinary prowess,” Truck says. “Looking to next year, we plan to expand the waterfront patio offerings and focus on ‘Events by Artisan,’ to take advantage of the other gorgeous spaces on property available for events.”
The Burrow: Honest Hospitality, the brand that owns downtown TC staples Mama Lu’s and The Flying Noodle, added The Burrow as its third restaurant in June. Company Co-Owner Adrienne Brunette gives the restaurant’s debut summer season a B+, noting that “overall traffic was good” but that lunch business “was slower than expected.” Brunette is hopeful lunch activity at The Burrow will pick up this fall, as the restaurant adds lunch specials and a happy hour. “If I had to give our team a grade, though, I'd give them an A,” Brunette adds. “Just a remarkable job with little to no snafus opening in the heat of summer. All the systems were in place and it showed.”
Modern Bird: “We'd give our first summer an A,” Modern Bird Co-Owner Andy Elliott tells The Ticker. “We had a great opportunity to introduce ourselves to the community, and by and large, had wonderful guests all summer. The only hiccup we've faced is last-minute cancellations that are difficult to fill on the day of, so we may start adding a nominal fee to reservations next year for the summer months.” Elliott says last-minute cancellations happen every day, but tend to be “more frequent on the weekends.”
The Tasting Room: Though The Tasting Room got the majority of a summer in 2021 – the restaurant opened on July 1, 2021 – its 2022 experience was completely different. That’s thanks in large part to the restaurant’s new liquor license, which came through on June 30 after a whole year of no alcohol service. “Having the license changed everything for us,” says Co-Owner Christine Skibowski. “People don’t often spend evenings out without a drink. Last year we would see about 75 percent of the people that came in walk back out. This year, they stayed.” Skibowski ultimately gives summer 2022 at The Tasting Room a B+, praising the restaurant’s seasonal staff of college students for being “the backbone of our summer,” but noting that customers weren’t as polite or generous with tipping as they were a year ago. “The customers were overall patient, but they did not show the younger staff as much respect as we would have liked,” she says.Comment