2015-05-30 / Top News

Summer Outlook Is Good on Island as Tourist Season Begins

By Stephanie Fortino


At left: A Mackinac Island Carriage Tours buggy filled with visitors makes its way down Market Street Tuesday, May 26, as a family looks on. The company experienced a busy Memorial Day weekend. At left: A Mackinac Island Carriage Tours buggy filled with visitors makes its way down Market Street Tuesday, May 26, as a family looks on. The company experienced a busy Memorial Day weekend. Business on Mackinac Island fared well during Memorial Day weekend and advanced bookings at hotels are up. Members of the business community are cautiously optimistic about the summer ahead, which could benefit from good weather.

“I’d say we’re off to a very fine start,” said Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Tim Hygh Tuesday, May 26.

Good weather marked the first part of Memorial Day weekend, drawing many people to the Island.

Business was good at hotels and downtown shops. In general, retail shops are much more weather-dependent than hotels. The good weather early in the weekend meant business was good for both sectors.

Weather greatly affects travel to the Island, according to representatives of Arnold Transit Company, Star Line, and Shepler’s. Travel fluctuated each day throughout the weekend.


Hoteliers and boat companies are optimistic that this summer will be good for business on Mackinac Island. A portion of M-185 along the western shore near downtown is shown from the water Tuesday morning, May 26. Hoteliers and boat companies are optimistic that this summer will be good for business on Mackinac Island. A portion of M-185 along the western shore near downtown is shown from the water Tuesday morning, May 26. At Arnold Transit Company, General Manager Veronica Dobrowolski said Saturday, May 23, and Sunday, May 24, were the busiest days of the holiday weekend.

She has noticed an increase in the number of visitors who stay for just a few hours.

“Memorial Day was awesome,” said Chris Shepler, president of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry. “We saw near-record-setting numbers in Mackinaw City on Saturday, and in St. Ignace, we saw nearrecord setting numbers on Sunday.”

Mr. Shepler said the majority of travelers last weekend were from Michigan, but the international traveler market is increasing.


Memorial Day weekend was strong for many hotels on Mackinac Island. Here, bicyclists are seen enjoying a ride through downtown on Main Street Tuesday, May 26. Memorial Day weekend was strong for many hotels on Mackinac Island. Here, bicyclists are seen enjoying a ride through downtown on Main Street Tuesday, May 26. Looking toward the summer, he said, “Right now, if we continue down the road we’ve been on the last four weeks, I’m going to jump for joy.”

Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry General Manager Mike North said the company also fared well last weekend.

“It was very good. We had a good weekend and we had to run some extra boats,” he said. “Sunday was good, too.”

Traffic picked up Saturday, he noted, which is typical for a threeday long holiday weekend. Many travelers were from Michigan, although the number from out of state is growing over past years.

When looking to the summer, Mr. North is optimistic.


While waiting for an evening boat back to the mainland, visitors leaving Mackinac Island after Memorial Day are shown on the Star Line Dock (in the foreground) and Shepler Dock (in the distance) Tuesday, May 26. Both companies and Arnold Transit had good business on Memorial Day weekend. While waiting for an evening boat back to the mainland, visitors leaving Mackinac Island after Memorial Day are shown on the Star Line Dock (in the foreground) and Shepler Dock (in the distance) Tuesday, May 26. Both companies and Arnold Transit had good business on Memorial Day weekend. “A lot of it depends on the weather, but we think it’ll be good,” he said. “I think we’ll have a good year no matter what, and [good] weather will put it over the top.”

Things are already looking up, he said, as the company was able to start operating a bit earlier than last year, when the season was delayed by a late spring ice breakup.

The Saturday before Memorial Day weekend was busy for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, according to hiring director Mike Beaudoin. Things slowed down somewhat Sunday, however, averaging out the weekend for the carriage company.

“If Sunday would have been as busy as Saturday, it would have been a great weekend,” he said.

The weather forecast, he added, might have discouraged people from taking more carriage rides. And Monday is always slower, he said, as people leave their vacation destinations and head home for the week ahead.

In addition to Memorial Day, spring on Mackinac Island is marked by an influx of school groups that come on end-of-theyear field trips, and early conventions like Knights of Columbus. Memorial Day weekend really starts the summer season momentum, which picks up with the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference at Grand Hotel. Conference accommodations overflow to downtown and the conference brings many people into shops, increasing business for everyone, Mr. Hygh of the CVB said.

The summer is looking bright for Grand Hotel, said Vice President Ken Hayward. The hotel will be open from May 1 to November 1, one of its longest seasons.

“Last year we had a record year, and we’re expecting equal or higher this year,” Mr. Hayward said.

Convention bookings provide the foundation for the hotel’s summer occupancy, he said, starting with the Winsome Women Retreat in early spring. Other conventions and events last throughout the summer, and the fall is marked by group tours that travel throughout the Midwest.

“We’re on our way to a busy peak season,” Mr. Hayward said.

More people are traveling for leisure as the economy improves and more people can afford to go on vacations again. Mr. Hayward has noticed visitors booking blocks of rooms, a trend that started last year. When the economy was sour, fewer blocks of rooms were booked, but that is now increasing.

“It’s a sign of a good economy,” he said.

Mr. Hayward also noted there’s a more diverse customer base in general.

“There is a very diverse group coming to Memorial Day,” he said. “The holiday weekend always brings out lots of folks.”

Many businesses attribute the improved economy to increasing marketing efforts like the Pure Michigan state advertising campaign.

“The Pure Michigan campaign brings people from further away to our state and Mackinac,” Mr. Hayward said. “Every study they do, they find that people are staying longer and spending more. It’s a great trend for our state, it’s a great trend for Mackinac.”

Travelers, he noted, commonly come here from Texas, New York, and California.

Mr. Beaudoin of Carriage Tours said increased presence on the internet also entices the many carriage drivers and tour guides the company needs.

“Mackinac seems to survive, and especially with the internet, we’re being rediscovered,” Mr. Beaudoin said.

Vacation packages and the Island’s summer events help attract visitors, according to Grand Hotel.

Mission Point Resort business was also good, according to General Manager Bradley McCallum.

“We had a really great Memorial Day weekend, stronger than we expected,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a harbinger of a strong season.”

Over the last two to three years, Mission Point Resort has had positive growth, which Mr. Mc- Callum expects to see continue or exceed this season.

Businesses like Mission Point Resort monitor tourism and hospitality trends throughout the state to get an idea of what’s to come for the summer. All of the forecasts have a positive outlook for the summer, which Mr. Mc- Callum sees correlated by the number of people making advanced bookings at Mission Point Resort.

The guests staying at hotels can be generalized into two basic groups, including leisure travelers and groups. Leisure travelers include families, couples, and groups of friends going on vacation. Group travelers include conferences, wedding parties, school groups, tour groups, and other organized events.

The advanced group bookings are the strongest indicator for summer business projections, because the groups have to commit to rooms in advance and sign contracts ahead of time. Many leisure travelers wait until closer to their vacations to book hotel rooms.

The advanced booking of weddings and other events throughout the summer signal a strong season ahead for Mission Point Resort, Mr. McCallum said.

While most guests at Mission Point Resort are from Michigan, the number of out-of-state travelers is growing. Travelers from the upper Midwest make up the next largest portion of visitors.

The majority of international travelers who stay at Mission Point Resort are from Asia and Germany. Mr. McCallum supposes that international travelers come to Mackinac Island as part of tours of the Midwest or Great Lake Region travel packages.

Advanced bookings are also up at Iroquois Hotel, said one of its managers, Sam Barnwell.

“Advanced bookings are up, the weather’s looking great, and we’re encouraged for a great season.”

Melanie Libby, the general manager of Bicycle Street Inn and Suites, also anticipates a busy summer season.

“Bookings have been strong,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a great summer. The Island was very busy for Memorial Day. The warmer weather helps everything get off to a good start and gas prices are still low.”

Looking to summer, Ms. Dobrowolski of Arnold Line said, “Groups are up and things are looking positive for the upcoming season all around.”

The Great Lakes cruise ships are already coming to port, she said, another indicator of a busy summer.

The summer yacht races bring hundreds of sailors and visitors to the Island each July. Many of the biggest boats use portions of Arnold’s docks to moor vessels.

“The Bayview and Chicago yacht clubs are predicting more boats,” Ms. Dobrowolski said. “They just called me for extra dockage,” signaling a strong summer yacht race season ahead.

Mr. Shepler pointed out that weather will continue to be an important factor.

“If it’s sunny and warm,” Mr. Shepler said, “it could be a really great summer for us and northern Michigan as a whole.

“Day traffic is real strong right now. We’re hoping that is an indication of good things this summer. But we’ve got to be cautious. If it rains on a couple of big weekends, it can all get washed away.”

Increased events on the mainland also draw more visitors to the Island, increasing tourist traffic to the entire Straits of Mackinac area, observed Mr. Beaudoin.

Ms. Dobrowolski said the ferry company is trying to offer more services to get visitors to stay in the Straits area for longer.

“People are staying longer with more events,” she said. The company has started offering leisure cruises this year as way to keep travelers in the area longer.

Providing a good experience for visitors once they get to the Island is essential for bringing them back for more vacations in the future. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours urges its drivers to be friendly and cheerful, making a positive first impression. If a rider has a good experience on the shuttle going to his or her hotel from the boat docks, they might decide to later take tour or private carriage around the Island.

“You want all the people who come here to have a good time,” Mr. Beaudoin said.

Being hospitable to tourists is everyone’s job, he said. Recently he’s been working with the dray and garbage wagon drivers to be friendlier to visitors, who are unfamiliar with sharing the roads with horses.

“We’re trying to sell hospitality,” he said.

Mr. Hayward of Grand Hotel added, “As long as you take care of them when they’re here, they’ll come back.”

“All indications are good,” Mr. Hygh said. “We’re happy with our marketing plan. We have put everything into it and are hoping for the best. We hope we put on a great show.”

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