2009-05-16 / Top News

Looking to the West: U.P. Has Strong Advantages in Drawing Travelers

Population Centers Are Closer Than Many Realize, Nemacheck Says
By Ellen Paquin

The Upper Peninsula has several robust advantages in drawing tourists, and they are often overlooked in statewide travel forecasts, says Tom Nemacheck. The executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association based in Iron Mountain, Mr. Nemacheck is looking at a brighter U.P. tourism picture for this summer than some of his downstate colleagues. The reasons, he says, are three-fold: The U.P. is close to population centers in other states and has already begun drawing in those travelers, the peninsula as a whole had a good summer last year and the trend should continue if fuel prices remain low, and the U.P.'s longstanding advertising appeal to out-ofstate markets will get a welcome boost from the state's national "Pure Michigan" campaign this year.

Those strengths are sometimes discounted in travel reports that label the U.P. a remote area of the state.

The Upper Peninsula is not so far away from population centers at all, Mr. Nemacheck said, referring to recent forecasts in which trend trackers said the U.P. travel outlook is hard to gauge because of the peninsula's perceived distance from major cities. Donald Holecek of Michigan State University (MSU) has projected a 3% to 4% dip in tourism across the state for this summer, and a 5% drop for the Upper Peninsula. Dave Lorenz of Travel Michigan, finding the MSU forecast a little pessimistic, is estimating a 2% increase statewide this year, but said the U.P. will still be challenged by distance for travelers. Both forecasters noted that low gas prices and the state's advertising campaign should be helpful to the U.P. Their remarks were published in The St. Ignace News April 16.

But the Upper Peninsula is drawing more and more of its travelers from a different market. The distance perception common in downstate Michigan is simply not a factor for travelers from states to the west, Mr. Nemacheck said, and they make up a growing segment of U.P. tourists.

"We're not 'so far' from things," Mr. Nemacheck said. "We're far from the markets [downstate Michigan is] used to thinking about. The other travel reports don't respect the adjoining border with Wisconsin. Other agencies don't realize a lot of travel patterns coming out of northern Illinois, Chicago, and Wisconsin come straight north to the U.P. Michigan often thinks the only way to bring in travelers from Illinois is through the southern corner. A ton of these travelers come straight north, through Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan. They intersect the Michigan/Wisconsin border exactly in the middle of the Upper Peninsula."

It's only about a 4.5-hour drive, roughly 260 miles, from Chicago to Menominee, on the Michigan/Wisconsin border.

In the Lower Peninsula, there's a tendency to think of travel as a north-and-south pattern because of the state's geography, Mr. Nemacheck said.

"The U.P. lies east and west, while the Lower Peninsula lies north and south," he said. "There's potential for each area to draw people in different ways. The Lower Peninsula doesn't draw any travel from the east and west because there's a lake on both sides. But in the U.P., there's a travel corridor for us from Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin."

Travel patterns are shifting in the U.P., he said, and have been for seven or eight years. While once 70% to 80% of summer travelers here were Michigan residents, now they make up only about half of the tourists on the road.

This, he said, is a trend U.P. travel planners want to see.

"Last summer we probably only had 50%" Michigan travelers in the U.P., he said. "We lost a lot of Michigan travelers, but we've increased the out-of-state travelers, and we think it will continue to increase. We have made huge inroads in drawing travelers coming from Wisconsin, for the whole U.P., even as far east as Drummond Island. We've gotten good comments from businesses from one end of the U.P. to another" about the growing presence of summer tourists from other states.

Those inroads were made through his agency's advertising and marketing efforts in other states, Mr. Nemacheck said, and he's particularly excited to see the statewide promotion campaign going nationwide this year.

"Ten years ago, we started doing more work in out-of-state markets," he said of the U.P. travel association. "We didn't give up on lower Michigan, which is still an important market for the U.P., but we started to swing that pendulum to out-ofstate markets. The economy in lower Michigan started to turn sour 10 years ago, and we started to move our resources to other markets where people have sound jobs and can travel."

The efforts have been paying off for Upper Peninsula businesses, he said. Last summer through August, the Upper Peninsula as a region was up 2% to 3% in spending as compared to the year before, although the quick downward slide of the economy in October dragged down the year as a whole by 5%, compared to 2007. Statewide, a roughly 6% drop in travel was reported last year.

The association promotes the U.P. through print and billboard advertising and through 200,000 copies of its glossy "Michigan's Upper Peninsula" magazinestyle travel guide. The guide is distributed through travel shows, Welcome Centers, AAA offices, other tourism associations, and sent to people who request it through the agency's Web site.

Print ads are targeted to women making decisions about family travel, using Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, for example, and Sunday newspaper inserts throughout the Midwest.

For billboards, "we do what they call a 'showing' billboard. In Grand Rapids, for example, we buy as many boards as we can to get a good showing. That means numerous impressions of our message on people driving there. Dramatic, single image pictures are featured, iconic shots of the U.P. such as the Mackinac Bridge or the Soo Locks," he said. The boards direct people to the attraction itself, or to the Web site.

In its fourth year of billboard promotions, the agency is pleased with results.

"It's hard to track directly, but the billboard exposure can be tracked in increased Web site traffic," Mr. Nemacheck said. "We feel pretty good about that. In a market like Grand Rapids where people are familiar with our product, a 60-day billboard showing makes sense."

For audiences farther away, his staff works closely with travel writers to showcase the area's attractions in articles to appear in magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and on Internet sites.

"This is the major key component to exposing our product to people outside the Great Lakes, in markets we could never afford to buy," he said.

It will help host a travel writers' convention May 8 through May 12 at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. On the last day of the convention, Mr. Nemacheck will take a group of six travel writers on an EUP tour. He will also host an "off-Island" day for a group of the writers May 10.

The association is funded by a 1% assessment added to motel rooms across the U.P. and by membership dues. The assessment is separate from the locally collected 2% visitors bureau room assessments in some communities.

Even though the agency has been seeing its out-of-state marketing pay off for the U.P., the coming season will be hard to gauge because of the national recession, Mr. Nemacheck said.

"It's a little different right now because the whole economy is down," he said. "This winter was tough for the U.P. It started to really drop off in October when the economy went bad, and then we had a combination of a bad economy and good snow elsewhere that hurt us.

"We got a head start on this out-of-state marketing to create a bigger base of awareness for the U.P. Now putting on top of that the state's national campaign, I feel promotion-wise, we're as good as we could be," he continued. "Now the question is, how bad is the economy? Had we started our statewide campaign seven or eight years ago, we'd be in an even better position. Now we're exposing them to our product at a time when people are feeling hesitant."

Affordable, nature-based activities for families are another strength Mr. Nemacheck sees for the peninsula, and he advises communities to be aggressive in planning events to "give people additional reasons to come."

"We're not an expensive place to travel. This has had an impact in years past, and in a down time like this, it should continue to have an impact," he said. "One thing that has played a big role in a lot of U.P. communities has been events. St. Ignace is one that has done an excellent job in being creative with events. It attracts a sub-group of people and gives them a new reason to come. Create some energy. This was our advice seven or eight years ago, and it will play well in our communities this summer, as well. Some have done nothing along these lines, and their communities are showing it."

Michigan's outreach to neighboring states through its Pure Michigan campaign this year is the right approach, Mr. Nemacheck said.

"The state program having a national presence this year is spectacular. This will do tremendous things, and the U.P. will benefit. We had a good summer last year, and maybe building on that and the Travel Michigan nationwide campaign will help. We're excited to see it.

"Maybe we will have a pretty good summer."

Travel guides can be requested at www.uptravel.com. Next year, the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association will mark its 100th year of promoting Upper Peninsula tourism.

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