Stutzman: Tourism matters to area’s growth

I am fired up! I recently returned from the 2014 Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism. This annual event is a refreshing rally for the tourism industry and this year boasted great news for those who rely on visitors to put food on their tables. Tourism is now the top economic engine for our state.

Before the Pure Michigan marketing campaign was developed Michigan was struggling. The fall of the auto industry left our state in shambles. Auto manufacturing could no longer be depended upon to keep our economy afloat. Desperately searching for a life ring, members of the tourism industry banded together to create Pure Michigan.

It was realized that our greatest assets as a state weren’t that of the four-wheel kind, but that of the outdoor kind. Historically, we didn’t think tourism really mattered much. Out of 50 states we were ranked darn close to last in our tourism marketing spending and visitation. We didn’t think of ourselves as a worthwhile vacation state and neither did anybody else. But in the middle of the downfall, a time when most everyone was slashing marketing budgets, Michigan stood up and took a risk, convincing the governor to allocate more money to tourism.

How are we doing now? Well, the results are in and it turns out that tourism matters. For every $1 spent on Pure Michigan marketing the state gets a return of $6. One out of eight jobs in the state exists because of the tourism industry. Tourists spent over $1 billion (that’s billion with a B) at locally owned Michigan businesses last year. Developing Pure Michigan was a huge undertaking that led us to uncharted territory but we have all benefited from it in terms of a healthier state economy and quality of life.

Learning about the state’s process reminded me of Alpena’s story. After realizing that manufacturing is not what it once was and our greatest community assets are quality of life and outdoor resources, the CVB and City of Alpena collaborated about two years ago to bring us our Sanctuary of the Great Lakes identity. The tourism conference was a great reminder that we are on the right track but still have a long way to go and marketing isn’t enough, the community also must deliver on the experience. Here are some key themes that carried throughout the conference:

  • Visitors are tired of homogenized cities filled with chains and franchises. They are seeking communities with authentic character. Travelers make destination decisions based on local flavor but will want to see that there are enough national brands to offer familiarity and safety. They want to know there is a 24-hour drug store available nearby if they need cold medicine or sunburn cream but that is not ultimately why they select a community.
  • Visitors want to experience the life of the locals. Travelers are interested in locations that offer new experiences with chances to interact with the local population.
  • It’s not about what you; it’s about your audience. The average traveler makes about $150,000/year, are between the ages of 45-65, and are active. Of course there are various other types like families and business travelers but the group of largest significance is that of the above description. It’s important to know your customer base and speak their language but also be mindful of who you may be missing out on because you aren’t speaking a language they understand.

What does this mean to you?

As an average everyday citizen it means that visitors to our community like when you greet them with smiles and help them find local places to visit. Replace, “There’s nothing to do here,” with, “You can’t leave Alpena without looking for fossils at Rockport State Park or take a walk with the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Gardens,” or, “Have you steered the ship through the storm at the maritime center yet?” Don’t just suggest a restaurant; also suggest your favorite dish.

As a business owner who sees increased traffic from visitors, what are your plans for making the customer experience memorable? How can you leave a lasting impression so when the visitors go home they tell everyone they know about this great little place they found in Alpena, Mich. The number one source for travel information in today’s world is not Expedia, or Travelocity, or fancy brochures or an agent; it is word-of-mouth reference from friends and family.

Tourism matters. Pure Michigan has proven to be successful at increasing the nation’s awareness about Michigan as a preferred travel destination. That means there are a lot of eyeballs on Michigan. Now we must stand out from the crowd of great Michigan destinations by offering a one-of-a-kind experience for our visitors. Need help? Contact us at the CVB office and we’ll help you brainstorm.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.