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Published in Economic Development
The Lake Michigan shoreline near Holland. The Lake Michigan shoreline near Holland. COURTESY PHOTO

Pure Michigan campaign reboots with $30M appropriation

BY Sunday, October 24, 2021 07:00pm

Travel Michigan will once again mount full Pure Michigan tourism campaigns starting for the coming winter travel season and extending into 2022 for the traditional busy summertime.

Using $30 million in funding that legislators and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included in the state’s 2022 fiscal year budget that started Oct. 1, Travel Michigan will reboot the Pure Michigan campaign, which essentially went silent during the first year of the pandemic and was then scaled back in 2021. 

The upcoming campaigns will focus on “reminding the world that we are still Pure Michigan and that we still offer great experiences,” said Dave Lorenz, the vice president of Travel Michigan, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“We really need to help the travel industry come back to life,” said Lorenz, who expects that 2022 “will be the year when America and the world discovers how to travel in the new environment.”

“I think that 2022 is going to be that pivotal year where people decide, ‘I’m ready to get out there. I’m going to do all of the things I need to do to keep myself, my family and others safe, but I’m not going to hold back anymore because I’ve done my share of holding back,’” he said.

In the prior 2021 fiscal year, Travel Michigan conducted a $15 million regional campaign in the Midwest to promote the state as a travel destination. The agency not only lacked the funding needed for a national campaign this year, but “we weren’t convinced that people would travel far yet because of travel sentiment due to COVID,” Lorenz said.

Travel Michigan did not conduct a national summer travel campaign in the prior 2020 fiscal year given the spring onset of the pandemic and because the funding got “unbudgeted,” Lorenz said.

After receiving $30 million in the new state budget, Travel Michigan will renew partnerships with other states for an international campaign to promote the Great Lakes region to foreign travelers. Lorenz hopes to have details on Travel Michigan’s plans in time for the annual tourism conference next month in Detroit.

Working with Kansas City, Mo.-based MMGY Global, a new agency the MEDC contracted last month to manage the Pure Michigan promotion, Travel Michigan faces distinct challenges in the ongoing pandemic, the lack of a national campaign for two years, and sentiment among travelers who are “not 100 percent ready to travel,” Lorenz said.

“All of those challenges we need to answer, and we will,” he said.

A survey the American Hotel & Lodging Association conducted in August and released in September found that more than two-thirds of the 2,200 respondents nationwide planned to curtail travel because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases through this past summer. The association also reported in September that the hotel industry at midyear was still down more than 500,000 jobs from pre-pandemic levels, including 11,680 positions in Michigan.

Travel and tourism promoters locally welcome the restoration of full Pure Michigan funding.

Marci Cisneros, executive director of the Grand Haven Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said local occupancy in July and August — traditionally the busiest months of the summer tourism season — “looked comparable” to 2019 and 2018 rates.

Still, after two summers affected by the pandemic, the tourism industry can use the support the Pure Michigan promotion provides, Cisneros said, adding that most travel- and tourism-related operators are small businesses that have struggled through the pandemic.

“We remain hopefully optimistic (for 2022). We have some good indicators of travel for us this summer so, hopefully, that trend continues,” Cisneros said. “We’re starting to come out of this a little bit.”

Although occupancy rates for July and August this past summer were promising, “two months do not make up for the soft numbers of the first and second quarter and probably what we’re looking at for the fourth quarter,” Cisneros said. Occupancy rates were down in the first half of 2021 compared to 2019 levels. The spring, fall and winter travel seasons are “where we can really use the help,” she added.

The funding for the 2022 fiscal year allows the Grand Haven Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and six other bureaus in Lake Michigan destination communities to revive a summer travel campaign known as “Beach Towns” that they ran for years in a partnership with Travel Michigan.

“It’s needed now more than ever, and it’s a start in the right direction,” Cisneros said of including Pure Michigan funding in the state budget. “Having (Travel Michigan) be properly funded and helping to lead us out of the pandemic and into a more secure place is extremely important.”

According to Experience Grand Rapids Executive Director Doug Small, the local destination marketing organization for Kent County, hotel occupancy rebounded from 38.8 percent for the first eight months in 2020 to 48 percent in the same period this year. That’s still well off the 66 percent occupancy rate through August 2019. 

However, the industry is experiencing year-over-year improvements. The August 2021 occupancy rate was 62.8 percent, versus 41.5 percent a year ago, according to Experience Grand Rapids data. 

Kent County hotels generally rely on leisure travel on weekends and travel for business and conferences during the week, Small said. Since the pandemic began, 580 groups have canceled plans for events in Grand Rapids, resulting in the estimated loss of more 253,000 room nights and $262.1 million in direct traveler spending, he said.

Travel to Grand Rapids picked up at midyear and slowed when the delta variant hit and “everybody got skittish again,” Small said. Lately, travel has started to recover, although he doesn’t expect a return to pre-pandemic volume until 2023.

His outlook mirrors domestic leisure travel projections from US Travel, but the trade group doesn’t expect domestic business travel to return to pre-pandemic volumes until 2024. 

Small recommended the Experience Grand Rapids board approve spending about $600,000 this year for a partnership with Travel Michigan to promote Grand Rapids as a destination for travelers.

While Small welcomes the new budget appropriation, he worries about long-term funding for the Pure Michigan campaign. The yearly cycle of waiting on Travel Michigan’s budget makes it difficult for organizations like Experience Grand Rapids to make long-term plans and partnerships for local campaigns using the Pure Michigan brand, he said.

Small would like to see a “more sustainable funding source” for Pure Michigan, which years ago had a $36 million budget. Barring a permanent funding source, he’d like to see a five-year commitment to funding “so that planning can take place properly.”

“This year to year having to wait and the stress of not knowing if you’re going to have something or not is getting really difficult,” Small said. “You’re strategizing for years out, and when you don’t know if you have funding, that makes it very difficult to create the strategies and tactics to get the job done.”

Cisneros echoed that sentiment.

“Consistency is such a critical factor in marketing and being able to consistently share a message with potential visitors is really how you succeed,” she said. “That’s how they succeeded so well in the past.

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