Areas in Northern Michigan like Petoskey and Charlevoix thrive on tourism, with the busiest season being the summer.
Over the years, these areas have attracted more visitors during fall, winter and spring, establishing more of a year-round economy, but summer continues to be the biggest season for tourism.
Since summer in Northern Michigan is a staple for many, resort towns are focusing more marketing energy on the off seasons, drawing in visitors with the attraction of autumn foliage, winter sports and spring flowers.
According to Charlevoix Area Chamber of Commerce President Sarah Van Horn, the majority of businesses in Charlevoix are year round, but seasonal businesses like water craft rentals and ski slopes still play an important role in the local economy.
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“That seasonal economy, we definitely can’t glance it. It’s something that we’ve been able to really prosper from,” Van Horn said.
“I think that’s kind of the root of a lot of what has come for growth and business development in the area, it started with that resort economy. And then from there, we’ve really been able to venture off into year round businesses and year round sustainability, but a lot of that started with that route.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, many people came to Northern Michigan to escape and safely enjoy the outdoor recreation the region offers. As restrictions have lifted, the enthusiasm for travel to Northern Michigan has not.
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Tourists have continued to make Northern Michigan their go-to getaway and some have even made it their seasonal or permanent home.
This increase in visitors and residents has added to the strain already felt by businesses due to labor and supply shortages.
However, many businesses are rising to the challenge. Erika Kleeman, owner of the Alanson Dairy Queen, said she enjoys the seasonal business even though it often means she has to work long hours.
“It’s worth it for me to work the long hours now. And I like it. I love being busy and I love waiting on the community. I mean the people have been nothing but fantastic to us. We’ve had great feedback, and I’m very thankful that everybody’s been so great to us,” Kleeman said.
“I’ve been a little short staffed, and like I said, the community has still supported me 100 percent. Even though we’re short staffed, they see how hard we’re working, I think, and so they’ve been really kind to us.”
Kleeman opens in April and closes around mid October and she works nearly every day, all day, for those six months. She said the long hours are worth it for the six months of free time she gets to spend with her two daughters.
One of her biggest challenges is the people applying for jobs at Dairy Queen are mostly minors who can’t work past 9 pm and, come fall, will return to school with limited free time to work.
One aspect of the seasonal business Kleeman doesn’t struggle with is saving money for the off-season. With her long hours in the summer, Kleeman said saving money is no issue because she is too busy to spend it until October.
Jim Powell, executive director of the Petoskey Visitors Bureau said the bureau does marketing for all four seasons, but due to summer’s popularity, most of the energy is spent driving tourism in the off seasons. Summer marketing promotes known events and emphasizes scheduling trips early before reservations book up.
“We don’t need to pour too much more gasoline on the fire; that is, summertime here in July and August are our highest occupancies that we see,” Powell said.
“The strategy that I would employ though, is to get out there early, reminding people to book their summer vacation sooner rather than later so that they can get a reservation and then shift to those off peak periods of fall, winter and spring.”
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Part of the draw of visiting Northern Michigan in the off seasons is because the area is quieter and less busy, Powell said.
“It’s quieter here, your favorite restaurants are easier to get into. As the snow melts off and the trails open up it’s a great time to be out there. This is prime Petoskey stone hunting season. As the ice recedes, it’s delivered a whole new deposit of Petoskey stones. In fact, we were out this weekend, we saw a lot of people walking up and down the shoreline looking for their favorites.”
One method of bringing more visitors in the off-seasons is appealing to businesses to host conferences at local hotels or resorts.
“We’re starting to put a lot more effort into driving that business, of getting that conference of 200 people up here during that time period,” Powell said.
“That’s a great way to help level out, only the seasonality of those off-peak periods, but we also look at that during even our busier months because that business to be here Monday through Thursday and we get a lot of weekend travelers in our summers. Those hotels and lodges, everyone checks out on Sunday morning. They get very quiet Monday through Wednesday, and then Thursday, people start to trickle in. so, that’s another way to help level off some of those peaks and valleys.”
As long as tourism is a major part of Northern Michigan, experts said its economy will always be seasonal. But through the efforts of the chambers of commerce, visitors bureaus, economic development organizations and community members, the region continues to build more of a year-round economy through off-season tourism and broadening into other industries.
“We want to make sure that people understand (that) we have a quality school system, we have access to great health care, those kinds of fundamentals that people look for in the community to know that there’s a reason that a lot of us have chosen to call this home,” Van Horn said.
“While a lot of it has to do with the beautiful seasons and summer being one of them, (but) our winter recreation opportunities are great and we have all those core benefits in a community like our schools and our hospitals and our opportunity for jobs through different industries and manufacturing and things like that. So, that’s a lot of what the chamber is focusing on, that we can live, work and play here and that it is year round, and we have a lot of opportunities here year round.”
Contact reporter Tess Ware at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @Tess_Petoskey