By Eve Kucharski
Listen Up Lansing Staff Reporter
It was over 20 years ago that Capital Tour and Information Service Director and Lansing resident Matthew Van Acker was hired on by the state Capitol. He has easily given hundreds of tours of the building throughout his career and yet still remembers his first visit.
“I was 4 years old,” said Van Acker. “I remember the visit. It was one of the events for my brother’s Cub Scout group.”
It was on that trip that Van Acker received a ribbon as a keepsake. Though the Capital tour guides long ago replaced them with bookmarks, Van Acker has held on to his. Keeping it in his office, he said that looking at it reminds him of the “importance of what we do.”
“On average we have [up] to 115,000 visitors per year,” said Van Acker. “All folks going on self-guided tours not included. We take our role as educators very seriously, most of our staff have education degrees or some sort of educational background.”
And Van Acker makes a point. A large amount of the people going on these tours are young students from third- and fourth-grade classes, looking to learn about the government and their state through a hands-on experience. This means that working in the Lansing tourism business impacts a substantial amount of people on a yearly basis.
“I tell my student tours, you’re in third or fourth grade now, but you may end up working here,” said Van Acker. “When I was here [like you], I never imagined I would.”
But this is just one aspect of Lansing tourism. According to the Lansing Regional Chamber website, the greater area hosts around 1.5 million visitors per year. One organization designed to help deal with this inflow of tourists is the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau.
According to Tracy Padot, its Vice President of Marketing and Communications, the convention & visitor’s bureau is a DMO, or a Destination Marketing Association. The Destination Marketing Association International website describes the role of a DMO, as an “unbiased resource” for travelers of both business and pleasure. And they are funded by a tax that visitors to Lansing essentially pay themselves.
“Most people think we are sponsored by the government,” said Padot. “In reality we are funded through a hotel-motel tax that people pay when they stay in the city. Our [funds] are remitted through the city and we use these funds to promote the location.”
Though the bureau has two locations, the 500 E. Michigan Ave., building is found in Lansing. It is there where visitors can pick up a traveler’s passport. According to the bureau’s chief operating officer of over 20 years, Julie Pingston, it is a long-standing tradition that “gives people more pride in their community.”
“For $1 you can buy a passport,” said Pingston. “So you can visit all the things the city offers. It gives you a base of knowledge. It’s been really popular, last year was its twenty-first year.”
Pingston also said that this has been possible, because overall, tourism in the area has been relatively steady during her time there, due to the longevity of Lansing institutions. In particular Lansing government, and nearby higher education.
“It’s been stable,” said Pingston. “Many travel to the greater Lansing area for the state government. Things that don’t go away. [And] being next to MSU and LCC absolutely adds to the dynamics that interest all people”
Pingston said that a frequent metric for measuring tourism in the city has been hotel occupancy, and that she has been seeing a rise in that statistic.
“Occupancy of hotels has been increasing this past year,” said Pingston. “Especially in December.”
A 2015 article in Crain’s Detroit Business showed that from the years of 2009 through 2014, there has been an increase of over 10 percentage points in average hotel occupancy. That suggests that the rise has indeed been steady, though this includes the areas around Lansing as well, such as the cities of East Lansing, and Howell, which is important to realize.
Lansing Radisson Hotel employee Emily Balander said she grew up in the city, and sees tourism fluctuate with the government’s schedule. Having also worked at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, she said she sees many of the same groups stopping by.
“We host anime conventions, sports teams; it depends on the time of year,” said Balander. “It’s based on the legislature, but mainly business and convention travelers [visit].”
The Lansing Center is largely why this happens. According to Kent Lenzen, its director of sales, it is the goal of city-owned building to host multi-day conventions.
“We try to get them in the door,” said Lenzen. “We try to get people to stay in the city for more than one day.”
And from a tourism perspective, that is important. The longer people stay in a city, the more likely they are to use its services, and contribute to its economy. This is especially important in a city like Lansing, where it might not be the first thought in someone’s mind when thinking of a place to travel.
Travel agent, Lansing resident, and president of the in-city Fuller Travel Service, Lynn Fuller said that she books for people interested in tourism. And rarely, does it involve people going to Lansing.
“I don’t do corporate work, I only do leisure,” said Fuller. “I hardly ever book people to Lansing, very rarely do I book people coming in to Lansing.”
And this is true for other firms around the state as well. Travel Leaders, a corporate travel agency located in Auburn Hills, Mich. finds itself booking clients elsewhere. Corporate Travel Office Manager Stephanie Collins said that Lansing really isn’t on the market for people interested in global business. But, neither is Michigan, really.
“We are a corporate travel agency,” said Collins. “We are usually locally oriented around Auburn Hills, and most of our travel goes out of Michigan.”
Still, for those who are interested local government, their local community, or may even exploring their downtown community more thoroughly, the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau can be a great start.