February 26, 2021

The fine line between saving a tourism-based economy and saving lives

Pure Michigan's Plight
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 23, 2021

After a year-long hiatus, the state’s Pure Michigan campaign re-launched late last month with a $1.2 million effort showcasing Michigan’s winter playgrounds. Its intent: to reinvigorate the state’s moribund tourism economy by luring visitors in and outside the state to visit places like northern Michigan this season.

While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t issued interstate travel restrictions or quarantine recommendations this winter, it has not only been urging people to strictly limit gatherings and interactions to those within their own household but also — since Nov. 18, 2020 — maintained the closure of indoor dining at all restaurants and bars, alongside mask requirements and capacity restrictions on many of the state’s tourism-related entertainment venues, like casinos, movie and live theaters, concert halls, sporting events and arenas, indoor pools, and more.

David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, defends the decision to launch the winter campaign, one he said was carefully crafted to get Michigan residents and those who live near Michigan to plan short trips even while they adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“I’m really pleased so far that it seems to be having a positive impact on encouraging people to safely travel because that’s part of it,” Lorenz said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Go out there.’ We’re saying, ‘Listen, when you are ready to travel, make sure you’re doing it safely by taking what we call the Pure Michigan pledge — that’s literally pledging that you’re gonna keep other people safe by doing all the precautions.’”

For Northerners, people whose lives and livelihood are deeply entwined in a region chock full of destinations Pure Michigan promotes, it’s difficult to know whether to embrace or shudder at this latest campaign, which is showing up on social media, print publications, billboards, and TV spots and targeting markets like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint, as well as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Toledo, Ohio; Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For the region’s tourism-driven businesses, the response to the $1.2 million effort likely depends on whether they stand to benefit from the campaign. Nevertheless, it begs a bigger question of us all: Are the people who are willing to travel for pleasure during a pandemic the same folks who are willing to do as the Pure Michigan pledge and MDHHS suggest — wear a face mask in public, frequently wash their hands, and limit interactions with people outside the residents in their household? And even if they are, should the state encourage them to travel at the same time it’s limiting what many tourism-dependent businesses can do?

UNSUSTAINABLE
Jeff Lobdell is president of Restaurant Partners Management LLC, owners of 17 properties, including Traverse City's Apache Trout Grill, Omelette Shoppe on Front Street (both currently open for carryout only), plus the Omelette Shoppe on Cass Street, Flap Jack Shack, and, in Suttons Bay, Boone's Prime Time Pub (the latter three are temporarily closed due). He said he appreciates the Pure Michigan campaign and what it does to stimulate the state’s economy, but that amid the pandemic, the state’s been too hard on the hospitality industry, especially restaurants.

“Michigan is one of our nation’s best travel and tourism states, and the Pure Michigan campaign, which from its inception was brilliant, really helped inject lifeblood to take us to another level,” Lobdell said. “But I think the current leadership of our state doesn’t prioritize the hospitality industry. … Restaurants have received the brunt of the closures as though our restaurants our hotels, our community gathering places are less essential than other businesses. It’s frustrating as a restauranteur.”

Lobdell’s frustration is common throughout the restaurant industry in the state, even as the last days of January tick away and restaurants and bars are slated to open again beginning Feb. 1.

Lobdell said his company has done what it can to make sure its employees survive during the closures, which he calculates have taken up over 45 percent of days since they began last March.

Lobdell said he was upset by the mixed signals sent by Gov. Whitmer and the state health department, which sometimes seemed to offer hope that restaurants could re-open only to reverse course.

“The frustration is getting to desperation for the industry workers when they’re getting toyed with like this,” Lobdell said. “That’s a lot of days that the dining rooms have been closed and I feel for all the restaurants that have now closed and will never reopen.”

Once a week, Lobdell said, his company hands out food and aid to its employees in Grand Rapids and Traverse City to make sure they have enough to eat. Some of the restaurants have stayed open to offer carryout, but Lobdell said they don’t do that because it makes sense as a business decision, but rather they do it in order to keep some staff employed.

“Most restaurants do takeout as a courtesy. It’s not a business-sustaining model,” Lobdell said. “You’re operating at a greater loss than just shutting your doors, turning down your utilities, and just paying your rent.”

Toni Bohnett, owner and manager of Yankee Boy restaurant in South Boardman, north of Kingsley, said she for one, doesn’t understand the Pure Michigan campaign launching to bring in tourists while the restaurants are closed.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Where do they go? I realize the hotels are open. I guess the casinos are open,” she said. “To me, if you’re asking people to travel, what will they do when they travel?

She said that in addition to lost revenue during the closures, she’s lost $10,000 in perishable food because she’s had to close.

“It’s gone on long enough. I feel like the restaurant industry is being targeted because it can be, through the health department,” she said. “For a lot of places, it’s coming to a sink or swim.” 

OPPORTUNITY AND OUTLETS
Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Tourism Bureau, likes the message sent by this season’s Pure Michigan ads because it is in tune with how most Michigan residents feel right now. Most are reluctant to fly because of the pandemic, but they might be willing to drive a bit in order to get somewhere for a getaway.

“People want to travel, and people want to take part in outdoor activities. It appears numbers are going in the right direction,” Beachnau said. “People are willing to drive a little bit farther; not everyone’s comfortable getting into an airplane.”

While one Gaylord restaurant — the Iron Pig Smokehouse — has gained notoriety for defying the restaurant closure order and then held a largely mask-less cookout in protest of the state cracking down on its food and liquor licenses, most businesses around Gaylord are doing their best to play by the rules and to keep people safe, Beachnau said.

“That is the way it is for this individual business, but our restauranteurs in Gaylord for the most part, they’re trying to change the rules,” Beachnau said.

Across Gaylord, businesses are doing their best to be safe, he said.

“Our industry has done an excellent job of adhering to cleanliness and safety standards,” Beachnau said. “You can travel safely if you adhere to the rules. And jobs depend upon it, and here’s the other thing — if you’re uncomfortable traveling, then don’t travel.”

Chris Hale, vice president of sales and marketing at Schuss Mountain Shanty Creek Resort, said that like Pure Michigan, his resort’s current advertising slogan emphasizes the value of the outdoors.

“Our current marketing campaign — “Bellaire is Fresh Air” — recognizes this moment, and our guests have responded. And isn’t that what we all need, a breath of fresh air?” Hale said.

Hale said he believes Pure Michigan has done a lot for the state and that while it is complicated to promote tourism amid a time of strict restrictions on businesses right now, people are making it work.

“The [Pure Michigan] campaign has reversed negative stereotypes of Michigan, shown the tremendous beauty and recreational variety throughout the state, while generating tremendous regional and national awareness,” he said. “We don't pretend to be more informed than the healthcare experts. The decisions of the health department and government officials cannot be easy. Our responsibilities are to manage our business the best we can, to take this opportunity to review what we can do that’s best for our staff and our guests, and to be there as an outlet for people to get away and to get outside and play.”

A SENSIBLE PERSPECTIVE
It’s important to note that, at $1.2 million, Pure Michigan’s winter campaign is only a small portion of the $15 million planned for this year; a much greater portion will go, as it typically has, to the campaigns touting the state’s destinations and recreational opportunities in warmer weather. And even that $15 million is less than half of Pure Michigan’s last spend, for 2018-19, when it enjoyed a $36 million budget. (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled the 2019-2020 advertising budget altogether in a line-item veto.)

Nevertheless, Lorenz said the smaller budget is appropriate given his office’s goals for the advertising.

He said recent surveys have shown that around 50 percent of people are comfortable traveling outside of their communities and that the winter campaign is aimed at getting those people out and spending money around Michigan.

“That’s why it’s important for us to spread the message that you can travel safely, you know, encourage them to take the Pure Michigan pledge because that 50 percent is still a big number,” he said. “Just in Michigan alone, that would account for about 55 million people. So, you know, we need to encourage that: Stay in the area, support your local state, support your retailers and restaurants as much as you can.”

Michigan offers plenty of outdoor recreation choices in the winter, and the Pure Michigan advertising is focused on those activities — even if there’s been less-than-expected amounts of snow so far this year and one of the state’s major draws, snowmobiling, isn’t happening in a lot of places.

But one month into the campaign, Lorenz said that Pure Michigan’s target audience is getting the message and following the rules.

“From my visits to Crystal Mountain and to Treetops Resort this last weekend, I could tell that people were appreciative, they were taking the safety protocol seriously, they just plain love being able to get out there, and, of course, they're enjoying the snow,” Lorenz said. “And skiing is open for business. The outdoors, all outdoors, is always open, and you can do that all safely. And I think it also is a great indicator that people are just having this pent-up demand to get out to enjoy the things that people love to do.”

Lorenz said it was important to launch the Pure Michigan campaign even while parts of the state’s economy were shut down because it was important to get as much of the economy going as possible while staying safe.

“Businesses need customers in order to open, in order to employee people. We provide customers, whether it be in-state residents traveling or out-of-state residents coming in, by encouraging them to travel safely,” he said. “When people are employed, they can pay for their things that they need to pay for, and they can pay taxes. When those tax revenues come in, we can pay for roads and schools and police and all the things that we need to as a society. That’s how the economy rolls.”

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