If you feed them, they will come. Culinary tourism, the theme at this year’s Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism, had more than 1,000 tourism experts and entrepreneurs talking in early March.
When it comes to maximizing tourism dollars spent in Michigan, food, agriculture, and locally produced beverages are what bring – and keep – money here.
Rebecca LeHeup, the executive director of the Ontario Alliance, said the connections between food and agriculture are inherent parts of the chain that attract tourists to an area, along with a region’s arts and culture.
“One thing every visitor does on vacation is eat,” said LeHeup, who presented at the conference, held at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme.
According to LeHeup:
• For every $1 spent on local food, $3 is generated in the local economy.
• Food is a brand extension of the region.
• A staff who knows and tastes the foods they are serving increases sales and tips.
Other speakers addressed the impact of tourism on lodging, economic development and branding. MSU professors Sarah Nicholls and Dan McCole presented statistics on Michigan’s 2013’s tourist season and predictions for the upcoming year. The study projects a 4.5 percent increase statewide in this year’s tourism spending.
Other findings from the MSU study include:
• Authentic and local travel are buzzwords for a significant number of tourists who shy away from fast food, strip malls, and theme parks.
• The leisure traveler is looking for simplicity; road trips and national parks are hot.
• From 2000-2012, Michigan was one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the U.S. along with California, Florida, and New York.
• Twice as many Americans prioritize saving for travel compared to saving for a car or hobbies.
Brian DeBano, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, said the MRA sees the role of food expanding as more people become aware of what the state has to offer in terms of its food and beverages.
“One in three dollars spent at restaurants is tourism related,” he said. “There’s a big role for us.”
Mike Norton, the media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism, said collaboration is key for northern Michigan to position itself ahead of other destinations.
“Instead of stabbing each other for the last piece of pie, let’s make the pie bigger,” he said, echoing LeHeup, who said industry players must “work together in competition” to increase tourism dollars.
Exhibitors said learning from others is the first step.
“We want to hear what others are doing,” said Coryn Briggs of Blackstar Farms.
H. Michael Buhler of Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company in Glen Arbor said the market could grow as a whole if the region, known already for its wine, beer, agriculture and dining, collaborated better.
“We all do a good job of marketing our foods and restaurants,” he said, “but it appears there’s a greater market there if we pull together and make this a destination for our food.”