2009-08-15 / Top News

How’s Business This Year?

Summer’s Weather Cools Down Island Commerce
By Kerri Jo Molitor

The summer season started slowly for Mackinac Island businesses and the unusually cool weather is having the most substantial effect on business, but the economy is coming in a close second, owners say.

Many businesses don't offer sales statistics comparing this sumer to last, but do observe that fewer people seem to be traveling here and visiting local businesses, particularly in the early part of this summer.

The cool July weather has impacted business at Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, said Brad Chambers of the company. His business hasn't been too bad, but he is looking forward to the fall, he said, explaining that August is generally busy until the third week and then in the fall, many tours come in.

The boat lines agree with Mr. Chambers' assessment of the season, saying the weather has been a big factor.

"May and June weren't the best two months," said Chris Shepler of Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry. "Whether or not people go to Mackinac Island is weather. If it's 48 [degrees] and rainy, they won't go."

July saw an improvement for Mr. Shepler. Last year, he said the improvement in business in July carried through the rest of the season, something he hopes will happen again.

"There's a lot of work in running a business right now," he said. "It's tough. Economic times are tough. Watching our P's and Q's is important; watching the expense side of the ledger is important."

Star Line Ferry General Manager Mike North said the weather has been an issue for business, as well, even more so than the economy. July was a really good month for Star Line because business was actually up from the previous year, but Mr. North explained that last year, business was down because of high fuel prices. With cheaper fuel prices this year, the ferry line did better, but Mr. North did say business is not like it used to be before fuel prices had gone up and the economy started to suffer.

"People are still coming to the Island," he said. "I've been pretty satisfied with the way this year has gone. It would have been better if the weather wasn't so cruddy. It's been a difficult year to predict."

One thing he has noticed as he walks through the parking lots at Star Line is an increase in out-of-state visitors. That could be attributed to the "Pure Michigan" campaign, he said, which was designed to boost travel from out of state.

At Arnold Transit Company, general manager Bob Brown said the last week in July and the first week in August have shown an increase in business. He attributes the pick up to the improvement in weather and perhaps consumers facing less uncertainty with the economy.

Lately, he said, the fall season has typically been better than the spring season.

Business at hotels and bicycle shops has been affected by the weather, as well. Todd Callewaert at The Island House said the hotel did better in July than was expected. The rest of the season looks bleak, he said, but it looked even bleaker on the Fourth of July. He is counting on people continuing a new trend of booking rooms at the last minute in the hopes of better deals. So he isn't worried about business for August.

"Labor Day is a week later this year," he said. "There are still a lot more rooms to sell."

He attributes an increase in hotel guests from out of state to the "Pure Michigan" campaign.

The family's other businesses, Starbucks and Ryba's Fudge shops, have been effected by the weather, as well, but in different ways. Starbucks, he said, has done well because of the cold weather, but the fudge shops have struggled because there are fewer people on the streets.

"For all the doom and gloom that was predicted, I'm glad," he said. "I'm fairly happy. If we'd had any [good] weather this summer, we'd be good."

The spring was slow for The Pontiac Lodge, said manager Joyce Babbish, and the fall will be slow, as well, but the hotel is full right now.

"We've been full for about two or three weeks," she said. "And the boat races were good. We have a lot of repeat customers and they're still coming."

Her assistant, Donna Adams, said the season started late for them, not until the Fourth of July, and overall business is a lot slower than last summer. This summer the hotel has had empty rooms more often than not, she said, while last summer the opposite was true. The slower summer makes them appreciate the business they have right now.

"It's nice to have work to do," she said.

At the Chippewa Hotel, General Manager Brian Bailey said business was significantly down in June and half of July. He also blames the weather as the biggest reason business slowed. He said the season will probably be slightly down compared to past seasons, but he is optimistic for the second half of the season.

"Since then," he said, "our phones have been ringing like crazy. The second half of July, August, and into September are looking pretty good."

Mr. Bailey said consumers' habits have changed as well, shortening their stay slightly and calling to book their rooms closer to the arrival date. In the past, he said, they would book rooms a month or two before they arrived, but now it is only two or three weeks ahead of time. He also said that while most of his guests are from Michigan, he has seen more people from out of state than in previous years.

"'Pure Michigan' has done a great job," he said, referring to the state's out-of-state travel campaign.

In contrast to the slow business at the hotel, Mr. Bailey said The Pink Pony has been doing well this season.

"We're seeing people spending more of their income in bar establishments," he said. "People tend to drink a little bit more instead of spending money at the restaurants and shops. It's good to have a liquor license."

Grand Hotel's General Manager John Hulett had many of the same observations about this season.

"The door is open, come on in," he said, intimating that Grand Hotel hasn't shut down from lack of business. There has been a decrease in business, though, he said. Compared to last year, business is down about 11%. Right now, August is lower than that for the month, he said, but people are still reserving rooms and he hopes he can stay steady at only 11% below last year.

The trend of booking rooms closer to arrival is true at Grand Hotel, as well But instead of attributing that to wanting last minute deals, Mr. Hulett suggests it is because of the economy.

"The economy had a bunch to do with it," he said. "People want to know they have enough cash to take a family vacation."

On a positive note, the hotel's bicycle shop has been steady. The shop is primarily for guests, but does rent to other Island visitors.

"That part is holding its own," Mr. Hulett said. "It's doing as well as it did last year."

Main Street Inn has had a good summer, said manager Julie Fisher, and business is only down by one or two percent. Mrs. Fisher also manages Mackinac Wheels with her husband, Jimmy Fisher, and said business was down a little for a couple of months, but the weather could be blamed for that. Without any statistics for comparison, Mr. Fisher said business simply felt slower and the foot traffic was slower, as well. He did say that since the Fourth of July, business has picked up and the past few weeks have felt more normal to him.

Another bicycle shop on the Island, Orr Kids Bikes, saw a slow start to the season because of the weather. Bill Lake, of Orr Kids Bikes, said the shop was doing better than earlier in the season.

"We're doing pretty good right now," Mr. Lake said. "I think the economy and the weather all added up."

Ryba Bike Rentals manager Pat Grodecki said business has been as good as other years, and better than she thought it would be. Although business was down because of the weather and the economy, it has picked up in July and August, which is typical. Those months are traditional vacation times and the extra business should help the season as a whole, Mrs. Grodecki said.

At the Butterfly House, man- ager Lisa Janisse said the season started off slowly, but has improved since then. Ms. Janise said August in particular has seen an excellent start.

"It just seems like August hit and people were like, 'We didn't go on vacation and if we don't do it, we won't get one,'" she explained.

Overall, she said business is about even with last year and may even be up slightly. Group tours, including from schools, are an important part of the business.

To draw people in, The Butterfly House offers customers free repeat visits. Once a ticket is bought, it is good for the entire Island stay.

"They just get more of their money's worth, which is really good in these times," Ms. Janisse said.

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