2008-08-16 / Top News

Businesses Report Drop in Traffic

Poor Early Summer Weather Hurt Commerce, but Hotel Stays Are Strong
By Ryan Schlehuber

Daily traffic on Mackinac Island's busy Main Street has been down this year, say many downtown businesses, however, hotels are reporting good turnouts for overnight guests. Many businesses blame bad weather for a slow first half of the Island's summer tourism season, which extends from May through October. Daily traffic on Mackinac Island's busy Main Street has been down this year, say many downtown businesses, however, hotels are reporting good turnouts for overnight guests. Many businesses blame bad weather for a slow first half of the Island's summer tourism season, which extends from May through October. With the summer tourist season passing the halfway point at the end of July, businesses on Mackinac Island are reporting the expected drop in traffic, although hotels are say occupancy is similar to last year, which was a good year for most businesses.

Michigan State University predicted this spring that tourist traffic would be down 2% and traveling costs would rise 4%.

On top of the anemic state economy, mortgage crisis, high unemployment, and lack of foreign visa workers available, many Island businesses have been struggling to adjust to the city's amended sign and window display ordinances, which many owners say has hindered business.

Businesses that depend on good weather, such as golf courses, bicycle rentals, and horse and carriage liveries, were hit the hardest with this season's slow start, however, hotels, retail shops, and restaurants, for the most part, have been able to make up for the sluggish beginning.

Bad weather, rather than high fuel prices, is blamed by many Island businesses as the main cause of the slow first half of the season.

"If we would have had a normal May, we'd have probably been pretty good," said Peter Marabell, who operates Birkenstock shoe store and Peace Frogs clothing store. "The first six weeks were lousy because of bad weather, but we're staying afloat."

The cold and rainy weather in the first two months of the season impacted Inn at Stonecliffe, too.

"The weather was difficult at first," said Stonecliffe General Manager Alan Sehoyan, "but we're doing well now."

Stonecliffe opened a new restaurant, Saddle and Sirloin Steakhouse, that was scheduled to be open only until October 9, however, Mr. Sehoyan said Stonecliffe has decided to keep it open another two weeks to "capture more business," now that the restaurant is doing well.

Grand Hotel General Manager John Hulett also says bad weather affected his hotel's additional businesses outside the hotel, although he reports occupancy is as strong as last year.

"The first part of the season for occupancy, we've done pretty good, all things considered," said Mr. Hulett, who said the bad weather stifled business from the time the hotel opened May 2 until almost the end of June. "Our golfing was down probably 20% because of bad weather."

Conference bookings for the Grand are as strong as ever, and bicycle rentals are now recovering, added Mr. Hulett.

For the rest of the summer, the Grand is almost booked for August, and is 75% booked for September and 80% booked for October.

"If Mother Nature stays on our side until Labor Day or beyond, we should be okay," he said. "We can still salvage a good season."

Overnight guests have kept this season satisfactory for Chippewa Hotel Waterfront and Lilac Tree Hotel, said General Manager Brian Bailey.

"We're hanging in there, especially with our overnight guests," he said. "Because of that, it's helping our dining room and bar, the Pink Pony."

Small bed and breakfast places, like Bogan Lane Inn, have managed to keep busy, too, said owner Trish Martin.

"I've talked to other B-and- Bs and they've said the same thing," said Ms. Martin, who offers four rooms.

Lilac House's LoriAnn Thompson said her bed and breakfast has been just as good as last year. She is in her second year of operating the business.

"Being that I went by the seat of my pants last year, from what I can see, we're holding our own," she said. "I raised my rates a bit and that has helped."

Lilac House, which has eight rooms, opened Mother's Day weekend in May and struggled a bit through a cold June, but has since flourished.

"July was excellent and August is picking up," said Mrs. Thompson.

Lower daily traffic has dampened the mood for downtown retail shops, and although the higher end retail stores are faring better than others, some say adjustments have had to be made.

"We've added more items in the mid-range prices," said Urvana Morse, manager of Scrimschanders, a gift store that offers quality artistic items. "We are down 14% from last year."

Mrs. Morse said the company is advertising more this year and saved some money by cutting down the number of people on staff.

"We've cut down on payroll because we don't need the extra help with the slower season," she said.

Although his second-year Victorian Summer art gallery is doing well, owner Jack Landres has seen more customers seeking a better deal on items such as paintings.

"I've definitely had more people bargain for a price than usual this year," said Mr. Landres. "It indicates to me that people may be willing to purchase something, but they're going to look for the best deals."

Sites at Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) have also struggled with daily customers. Fort Mackinac is down 9% from last year, according to Greg Hokans, chief of development and marketing.

Its off-island sites in Mackinaw City, Colonial Michilmackinac and the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, are down 9% and 15%, respectively, however, its revamped Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, that now includes interactive activities, has jumped 25% in attendance from last year. New activities at that park include an aerial cable ride, extended nature trail, and climbing wall and lookout tower.

Mr. Hokans said MSHP is hoping to build on marketing interactive programs in the future, as existing interactive programs at all sites have been popular.

"We offer a competitive value, not just with the Parks, but the entire Straits region," said Mr. Hokans. "It's going to take awhile to build up the number of visitors who come to this area again, but being able to offer a great monetary and experience value, and one that is truly unique, that's what will sustain us through the hard times and leave us better off when the economy rebounds."

Jack and Terri Armstrong's Cannonball Drive-in has done well, despite being on the west side of the Island at British Landing. Catering more to local residents has been making the difference, said Mr. Armstrong.

"We've made some changes to the menu, bought new equipment, and improved the building," said Mr. Armstrong, who said August is on a record pace. "We're enjoying more of the residents from the village [Harrisonville] and the east and west bluffs who are coming in for lunch."

Mr. Armstrong did say that the Cannonball's location four miles from town can be the best location in good weather, and the worst in bad weather.

"We're staying very optimistic for the rest of the summer," he said.

Bob Gale of the Butterfly House said his was one of the many businesses that have enticed consumers by expanding advertising to new areas. He further promotes his collection of butterflies and insects by using promotional tools, such as handing out magnets and wristbands.

"It used to be we didn't have to go out and get people," said Mr. Gale, a former Indian River school principal who thinks the nation's fuel prices have affected businesses more than they think. "Now we have to advertise outside our normal perimeters."

For the area's three boat lines, fuel prices have forced the companies to cut back on the number of daily departures. Fuel price increases have subsided, for the time being, however, they are still double compared

to last summer, said Arnold Line's Bob Brown.

"The summer is going as we expected," said Mr. Brown, whose company only runs its 12:30 p.m. departure to the Island and 1 p.m. departure to the mainland if needed.

Star Line cut out its 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. departures to the Island, and has cut down the number of departures from its Railroad Dock in St. Ignace, which was opened later this year. It will close earlier than last year, as well.

"We're only getting 20 to 30 people on a boat on all those trips, and when you have three boat lines going, it's not enough to cover the fuel prices," said Star Line General Manager Tom Pfeiffelmann. "If fuel comes down another dollar, then we might make some headway, but I think there is just too many boats for too few people."

Mr. Pfeiffelmann is hoping for a good turnout for the Labor Day weekend, similar to the crowd that came through during the Fourth of July. He believes a trend has formed this summer where most travelers are only making plans to travel during holidays.

He said Memorial Day weekend was also good.

Mr. Pfeiffelmann is hoping that is an indication that Labor Day weekend will be good for all Island businesses.

"I think it's looking good for Labor Day," he said.

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