U.P. tourism push defies economic downturn

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The tourism industry in the Upper Peninsula is staying afloat, despite funding cuts in the Pure Michigan campaign.
Pure Michigan is the marketing initiative of Travel Michigan aimed at drawing tourists to the state and encouraging travel within the state.
Last year, Pure Michigan launched a nationwide advertising effort with a budget of $30 million.
Now, however, that budget has shrunk to $5.4 million.
“It’s really a shame,” said Kirsten Borgstrom, the media relations manager at Travel Michigan, the state’s official travel promotion arm. “For every dollar spent on the campaign, two to three came back to the state.”
According to a study of the campaign by Longwoods International, a company that specializes in advertising research, a five-year investment of $2.3 million resulted in more than $1 billion in  visitor spending. In other words, every dollar spent generated $40.81 in tourist spending and $2.86 in tax revenue to the state.
Pure Michigan has benefited tourism in the Upper Peninsula by increasing awareness through national television ads and information on the program’s Web site. Unless that advertising continues, said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the U.P. Travel and Recreation Association in Iron Mountain, its impact will be lost.
“Anybody who knows anything about marketing knows that you don’t go out one time and then pull back,” he said. “That would be a horrible thing to do just as we start to get recognition. We think that the return on the investment would be even greater in future years if they continue.”
Pat Black, director of the Marquette Country Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed. He said that Pure Michigan is important because it draws valuable tourists from other states, not just from the Lower Peninsula.
“We saw a noticeable increase in visitors from the East Coast and Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida,” he said. “The people in Michigan have long supported us, but the economy in the Lower Peninsula is so bad that it directly affects us here in the U.P. It is therefore even more important to attract out-of-state visitors.”
Although funding has dropped for Pure Michigan, U.P. recreation and hospitality businesses haven’t given up.
One organization doing its own marketing is the Great Waters group, a branch of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Nature Tourism Alliance.
Great Waters has partnered with Pure Michigan to focus advertising on its area.
“There was a definite advantage of buying into the program,” said Janet Peterson, director of the Chamber of Commerce in St. Ignace. “However, it’s a fairly good chunk of money. In the Great Waters group, each of our counties raised money to get listed.”
Great Waters serves five counties: Chippewa, Mackinac, Luce, Alger and Schoolcraft. The group formed in 1999.
“Great Waters came together because they wanted to build their tourism industry back,” said Carol Eavou, the vice president of hotel operations for Kewadin Casinos based in Sault Ste. Marie. “Today, you see that the Great Waters campaign has 10 to 12 years of building that.
“It’s rather interesting trying to get five counties together for a promotion, but we were successful in making that happen,” she said.
Businesses benefit from the support and funding that Great Waters offers.
“We’re building brand awareness,” Eavou said. “We’re getting a strong working relationship with the Great Waters organization, and we’re benefiting. Kewadin is on the Web site, so we get indirect traffic from them.”
Nemacheck said that the U.P. Travel and Recreation Association has always done its own advertising and will continue to do so.
Peterson said that her chamber and the St. Ignace visitors bureau have a committee to prepare events that draw tourists.
“We’ve been able to be successful because as the economy started to drop, this committee really took steps toward making the best of a bad situation,” she said. “Somehow we’re going to make sure these events happen and, hopefully, by the time the economy turns back positively, then we’ll be in place. We won’t be inventing them at the time.”
Other communities are planning for the summer tourism season.
“We are doing a lot more partnering with everybody else,” including hospitals and a grocery chain, Eavou said. “It’s becoming more community-driven. It’s not just Kewadin putting on an event. It’s the community putting on an event.”
Summer promotions in St. Ignace last year included 10 weeks of fireworks on Saturdays, Peterson said.
“That’s on the docket again for this year,” she said. “We may even be able to expand that a couple of more weeks.”
Nemacheck said his organization has advertised the U.P. for about six or seven years as a “five-star wilderness.”
“It’s important that people know we’re still very much an outdoor recreational product,” he said. “Through the last 20 years we’ve added a tremendous amount of amenity and dining opportunities.”
But there’s still the possibility of more tourism promotion funding by the state.
The House passed a bill in December to permanently fund Pure Michigan from sales and tax collections on tourism-related businesses. The bill is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.
Sponsors include Reps. Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard; Dan Scripps, D-Leland; and David Nathan, D-Detroit.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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