Michigan travel industry feels ‘pressures in all directions’

Northern Michigan normally attracts visitors all summer to its beaches, such as this one between Charlevoix and Petoskey. (Shutterstock photo)

Instead of launching summer tourism in Michigan, the long Memorial Day weekend of 2020 signaled just how far the industry has to travel before it recovers from effects of COVID-19.

Hotels remain largely closed around the state except for essential travel. Tourism promotion efforts lost funding by the millions. And thousands of jobs that support visitors comprise part of the growing unemployment rate that reached 22 percent last week. 

Now travel industry experts are looking at what they can do to rebuild business and boost spending, which in previous years reached at least $25 billion per year.

Hiring enough staff was the industry’s biggest problem in 2019, but COVID-19 changed the playing field. Now lodging businesses don’t know when they can fully open, and restaurants and attractions across the state still face questions about capacity and how they’ll be allowed to operate. Seasonal businesses have still more concerns; so do venues that target banquets and conventions.

“There are pressures from all directions,” said Stephen Kircher, past chair of the Michigan Travel Commission and president and CEO of Boyne Resorts. “The state setting regulations for reopening is one; so are customer needs and expectations.

“In between is the practical execution of opening,” he said, “and trying to balance all three — and trying to do it so you’re not going to go out of business.”

Unclear is what the future for one of the state’s top-three industries will look like. Owners are setting new operating strategies to balance staff and customer safety.


“There’s no question that this industry is in a very precarious time,” said Bill Parlberg, COO of Zehnder’s in Frankenmuth and chair of the Michigan Tourism Council. 

Signs of the struggle can be seen across all segments of the U.S. travel industry:

  • AirBNB laid off 25 percent of its workforce as stay-at-home orders cut into its rentals.
  • Hertz filed for bankruptcy reorganization on May 22. 
  • Delta lost $607 million in the first quarter and warns the second quarter will be worse. The airline cut flights at three Michigan airports (Kalamazoo, Lansing and Flint). 

In Michigan, layoffs have been extensive, reaching casinos, hotels and travel support services. The total reached at least 90,000 tourism layoffs in April, with more continuing in May, even as the summer tourist season was ready to begin. 

“Tourism is one of the biggest employers in our state,” Parlberg said. “There is going to be a major impact on the state’s economy.”

And it’s not just about economics, he added. Activities like traveling around the state for its natural resources or attending festivals — most of which have been canceled through summer — help the industry make Michigan feel like home.

“There are a plethora of things we’ve taken for granted,” Parlberg said. “It leaves an empty feeling.”

One measure of the change is found in the hospitality industry. Michigan’s 1,400 hotels suffered devastating declines in occupancy, with impact on room rates and profitability. 

Data from STR, a  global hospitality benchmarking company, showed occupancy for all of the state’s hotel rooms at 18.1 percent for the week of April 5-11, a decline of 68 percent. The average room rate fell 35 percent to $66.49, making this week the worst of the pandemic. 

The situation was particularly bleak in Northern Michigan, when 12 percent of rooms were booked — a decline of 73.6 percent from a year earlier.

Across the country, “hotel performance data is uniformly bad,” said Jan D. Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at STR. “There really are no outliers on the positive side,” he added, noting that mild upticks through May are “still terrible.”

It’s not better among homestay vacation rentals, say operators who, like hotels, were allowed only to rent for essential stays (though, as Bridge reported, some lodgings are making generous interpretations of which visitors are considered essential). 

Janice Cutting manages three AirBNBs in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan. All three have been filled at times, she said, but it was different from high-priced times like U-M graduation. Instead, she was renting to health care workers or people trying to self-isolate away from elderly parents. 

Profits are elusive, she said. Two of her units are leased in a rental arbitrage arrangement that lets her manage them as short-term rentals. She pays a rental rate higher than a long-term occupant would.

Faced with little demand, she rented some days “at cost or below,” she said. “I figure some money is better than nothing.”

Looking ahead, with hotels and short-term rentals still not openly allowed under Michigan’s stay-at-home orders, she sees limited options for turnaround. 

“I have no real future reservations,” said Cutting.

That outlook follows an upbeat 2019, when Michigan’s travel industry flourished. 

“We just went through possibly our strongest year ever,” said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

In 2019, Pure Michigan-themed advertising influenced about 1.9 million trips which resulted in about $142 million in state tax revenue and a return of $8.79 in state taxes for each $1 invested, according to a survey done for the MEDC.

Kircher said the state needs to market Michigan again to get spending flowing through the hard-hit sector that, in many communities of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, is a top employer. 

“For the first time in 15 years, we are not marketing the state of Michigan,” Kircher said. “We shouldn’t be now, but we should be very soon.”

Travel success in 2019 came even as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October cut the $37.5 million Pure Michigan travel promotion budget. Funding was restored to preserve ads through year-end, with the MEDC taking over social media promotions in-house beyond that. Then, in February, the proposed 2021 budget called for $15 million to again fund Pure Michigan, and some in Lansing said travel promotion money could make its way back to the program in 2020. 

That’s a concern for the industry’s recovery, said Kircher. There’s also broader impact for the state, given projected budget shortfalls due to lower tax collections during COVID-19 crisis, he said. 

Whitmer announced in May that it has a $6.2 billion budget gap for the rest of this year and into 2021. 

“The state is going to be in a budget crisis like we’ve never seen,” Kircher said. “I understand that spending money on tourism is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but if we are going to drive the second-largest industry in the state, if Pure Michigan is not reignited, it’s going to be a huge missed opportunity in the third quarter and into 2021.”

Metro Detroit already has lost $32 million in business from nearly 50 conventions that canceled through fall, said Renee Monforton of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. One had been booked in 2008: The national convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was bringing 50,000 people to southeast Michigan over July 4.

Now, Monforton said, the CVB is operating with fewer than half of its 65 employees and trying to remind people about the attractions in southeast Michigan by sending inspirational messages. 

“Our philosophy is: dream now, visit later,” Monforton said.

That messaging is coming through social media due to budget cuts. Local tourism around the state is funded by accommodations assessments based on hotel room stays. So far, the Detroit CVB estimates an annual budget of about $7 million, down from $19 million last year.

Meanwhile, even as the industry struggles without knowing when it can reopen, it’s taking steps to determine what it will look like when it does. Communicating that to customers will be important to rebuilding business.

“What you or me will experience in a hotel stay is going to change drastically,” Freitag said. 

Housekeeping no longer will take place mid-stay, he predicted, and grab and go breakfasts will replace buffets. Self check-in will become more common instead of having masked staff greet guests. Hotel gyms may only be by appointment, and elevator rides — along with how to touch buttons inside them — will be regulated. At times, he said, that may mean not all rooms will be utilized.

“Overall, we are going from a high-service industry to a high-tech service industry,” Freitag said. 

Lorenz said he hopes that Michigan residents will consider how they spend their travel budgets this year, and find options within the state. Taking a day trip to explore, shop or eat out will resonate by keeping workers employed and generate tax revenue within the state. It also lets someone concerned about virus risks avoid air travel or other close contact in random travel settings. 

Monforton also is pursuing that approach in metro Detroit. 

“When the time is right, and the executive order is lifted, we will start out by promoting staycations,” she said. The target audience: people who live within a two-hour radius. 

Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan, said tourism doesn’t just reflect travel. It’s also how people spend their money on leisure activities, including restaurants. 

“Up until the COVID-19 crisis, it was one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy, as an aging and increasingly affluent population was spending more money ‘having fun,’” he said. 

Grimes is optimistic a recovery will start this year and escalate as confidence builds over fighting the coronavirus. The personal savings rate went from 8 percent in February to 13 percent in March, Grimes said, and federal programs for temporary job losses are replacing (or increasing) many incomes, while people have fewer places to spend. He expects pent-up demand for travel to build.

"So if and when we beat this virus,” Grimes said, “the leisure industry should enjoy a big rebound.”

But it may not be fast. Restaurants in the Upper Peninsula and some areas of northern Michigan were able to open in time for Memorial Day weekend, attracting some travelers.

At the Short’s Brewery in Bellaire, south of Traverse City, the first day of reopening was manageable in the restaurant, said Scott Newman-Bale, co-owner of the destination pub.  

But it had to turn down many people who’d shown up for the holiday weekend without reservations for the now-limited seating. That, he said, shows the pressures that will be felt across the leisure and hospitality industry in Michigan. All sectors of travel want customers to return, but as they do amid restrictions and new operating procedures, the industry may not be able to meet their demands.

“I think it’s going to be a much slower process … with issues people are working through,” he said. “This year is showing how all intertwined we are, with restaurants and hotels and towns.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 05/26/2020 - 8:38am

Gov. Whitmer has asked all down staters to stay away from northern Michigan this holiday weekend. Why don’t you ask Tad Dowker, owner of North Shore Docks LLC how it went when someone called up asking to have their boat put in the water before the weekend. When Mr. Dowker stated that there were many in line because his business had been closed, and he started late, he was doubtful it could be done. Then the caller asked, would it help if I told you I was the husband of the governor? So I guess it’s OK if Lansing residents the Whitmer’s travel, just not us peons.

I doubt we will ever see this story. The head of CBS said the media has passed the tipping point toward liberalism.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 9:53am

Arjay, this phone call made headline news on Fox and is all over the internet,,and it is true. No sensationalism just plain facts that expose a very ugly scenario of, HYPOCRISY, and the real motive for the Governors recent "open" decision, which was indeed very strange. This is almost as outrageous as Biden'e recent statement to the Black man interviewing him that if you are Black and don't support him you are not truly Black!! Is Biden a Southern Plantation owner in the year 1860? Is Gov. Whitmir and her husband displaying White Privledge? Hmmm......let the voter decide!

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:31am

Yes, that is where I initially saw it too. If Bridge is as non-partisan as they pretend to be, then this should be one of Bridge's stories. But me-thinks that Bridge is in line with all the other MSM and which a CBS executive said had gone beyond the tipping point. If a conservative had done this, there would be multiple stories on Bridge attacking this. There is always a slant or an omission to what they print.

Old hippie
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:03am

That's "Fakebook" news. Peel the onion. Tad posted he spoke with the Govs hubby. Then he takes down his FB posting (probably because he thinks he could be investigated). Then he puts up a Fakebook post under his business name that an employee told him about the fake call and added he did not even know that the Gov was one of their customers. Really? Sounds pretty incredible. Because it is.
I was able to stop Fakebook years ago with help from an intervention from family members and a 12 step program.

Bobby Joe
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 1:01pm

The Governor admitted it happened.

Old Hippie, everything you said was wrong. You really need to take a long and hard look at your thought processes- your assumptions, thinking, and conclusions are all wrong. Typical progressive.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 4:03pm

The story has been picked up by every major news outlet in the region and addressed by the governor todsy. There's not a conspiracy in everything.

Doby Joe
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 4:55pm

Yes, the Governor said it was just a joke. I laughed. You serf's should just accept your position already- the Governor (and by reflection those who support her) are better than you. They get to joke about black people not really being black if they vote Republican, they get to say that you can't go into a 7-11 unless you have a slight Indian accent, they get to joke about using their political positions to gain favors and privileges, they get to joke about sexual harassment. They're better than you, you serfs.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 8:56am

Whitmer's 6 foot law means that my business will not open until that is lifted. I run a charter boat where 6' separation is impossible. So until she lifts the ban, my business is slowly dying.

Walter Smitty
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 10:14am

We can only hope that the collective madness that engulfed our nation based on bad data and power-hungry politicians will end soon. This virus deserves specific and directed measures, targeting mostly the most vulnerable, and all of the other concentrated and steady efforts by Governor Whitmer to destroy Michigan's economy are unhelpful at best and killing thousands more at worst.

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 12:43pm

I always wade in on these discussions because often the only people who leave comments are negative about the governor or what is being done. I live in northern Michigan, so by defintion I live where tourism reigns and tourists are empresses and emperors of the realm. It's all about them and their dollar. Yet, we are comfortably retired and have plowed most of our considerable discretionary income, year after decade, into this area. We have hired dozens of workers and their equipment to work on our houses, we shop locally and our banking is local. Yet we get ignored, or we got told to buck up and court the coronavirus whenever we leave the house, because the tourism "industry" or the hospitality "industry" need the Czars and Czarinas of the rental and the restaurant, not to mention the ubiquitous tavern. We don't get our news from our relatives or from social media, we get it from the AP wire or Deutsche Welt. We've read the science--if we were 30 years old we would be shunning bars and restaurants and anyplace there was anybody else we could avoid--you don't want to catch that, even if you are young. You might live, but you might very well never be the same again. I am glad the Safer at Home is extended, so that my local hospital hopefully won't be inundated by sick people who were just out for a good time.

old hippie
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 3:55pm

Well said Robyn! My wife and I agree 100% and are in the same boat as you. We shop, bank and hire local too. But I am sick and tired with places unwilling to give us a table for 2 in the summer and then bait us with "local appreciation" nights in January. And having our home projects delayed so a short term renter, making it rain, can open by Memorial Day is frustrating.
This pandemic may call attention to the real need to ween ourselves off the tourism "addiction" up here and pursue a balanced, sustainable economy. Which includes tourism but does not rely on it 100%.
It is not a new concept as I have read efforts on and off for years on this topic. But it never gets the backing or attention it deserves. Have you ever heard of the "Front Street Irregulars"? They share a common desire to see this region have a broadly diversified, successful economy. They meet in Traverse (not regularly) but get little attention from the city or county leadership. But now maybe that will change.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 4:10pm

If the guidance is for local tourists to stay close to home this year -- next year? Until there's a vaccine? -- then northern Michigan's economy will collapse. Not enough people live within 2 hours of Traverse City to sustain the restaurants and attractions.

Eventually, people who don't own homes up north have to be welcomed or it won't work. Even then, many won't feel comfortable going out or staying in rental homes or hotels.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 7:00pm

So why did the governor go up north after she ordered more than half of Michigan's population to stay locked down at home?