Muskegon's Tourism: Gas Pains Equal Gains

May 18, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Many managers in the tourism and hospitality industries here are looking for the brighter side of the skyrocketing petroleum cost that is predicted to hold down American vacation travel plans this summer. The recreational boating industry is an exception, however, and is preparing for a difficult year.

As for general tourism, "We actually see (gas prices) working to our benefit," said Jill Foreman, tourism manager at the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"When you compare us to some of the up-north destinations, we really are good value. I really feel we are going to do well this year," she said.

The Muskegon County CVB is making sure potential visitors don't miss the point: Its Web site (visitmuskegon.org) has a "gas savings calculator" on the home page, where travelers can enter their home city and then compare the cost of driving to Muskegon versus Traverse City or Mackinaw City, based on the cost of gasoline that day.

According to a check of the gas calculator last week, people driving from Chicago to Muskegon and getting 20 miles per gallon would spend $71.23 for the round trip, based on gas costing $3.85 a gallon. If driving to Traverse City, the cost is $122.43, and to Mackinaw City, $159.39.

Muskegon County is ideally suited for family vacations, long a key factor in the region's hospitality industry.

"We've got an awful lot of things a family can do here in one week," said Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington, who owns the Marine Tap Room on Lakeshore Drive in the Lakeside District, the heart of the rental cottage and recreational boating businesses on Muskegon Lake. He ticks off many of the well-known attractions, such as the USS Silversides, the LST-393, the Port City Princess, Michigan's Adventure, and a lengthy list of festivals. And then, of course, there is the major family attraction: the long, sandy beach of Lake Michigan.

The cost of gasoline this summer is going to have an impact, said Warmington.

"I'm hoping it will be a positive one for Muskegon because we're directly on the waterfront and the city has over one mile of public beach with free admission.”

The hope is that people who can’t afford to take longer trips will decide to spend their vacation in Muskegon County.

Katen Patel, owner and general manager of the Baymont Inn and president of the Muskegon Area Lodging Association, said he doesn’t foresee a shortfall in the demand for rooms this summer. "I think we will sustain what we have," he said.

Patel said his businesses (he also owns the Ramada Inn in Whitehall) rely each summer on a "huge Michigan’s Adventure crowd," adding that the attraction has grown quite a bit over the years.

Like others, Foreman noted that the hospitality and tourist industry in Muskegon County has a strong family focus, and she agreed that, besides the beach, one of the strongest attractions is Michigan’s Adventure, which has an "extremely huge" ripple effect on the Muskegon tourism industry.

Michigan's Adventure, the state's largest amusement park, is near Whitehall, a few miles north of Muskegon. It has made a name for itself with seven roller coasters and 53 other rides and attractions. Last week the park unveiled Thunderhawk, the first suspended looping steel roller coaster in Michigan and the single largest investment in a ride by Michigan's Adventure to date. The ride was designed and manufactured by Vekoma International BV, Vlodrop, The Netherlands.

In 2007, Michigan’s Adventure was declared “Attraction of the Year” by Travel Michigan and the Michigan Hotel, Motel & Resort Association. Last week a group of 150 roller coaster enthusiasts from around the nation were invited to the park before it opened to the general public, for private rides on Thunderhawk, Shivering Timbers and several other rides.

Low-cost family entertainment is available in the form of festivals.

"We are a community of festivals," said Warmington.

Foreman said the number of Muskegon County festivals is "exploding." Some of the bigger events include the Miss Michigan Pageant, Summer Celebration, Bike Time, Unity Christian Music Festival and Pumpkin Fest.

On the CVB Web site, the numerous listings for summer cottages rented by the week "actually receive more hits some months than our branded hotel properties," said Foreman.

"We get a lot of people staying in Muskegon for longer periods of time now — a week or two weeks," said Louise Hopson, owner of Art Cats Gallery and vice president of the Lakeside Business District.

"I think we're going to have a decent season. People are still going to go on vacation," said Hopson.

Muskegon suffered the loss of two major attractions in the last two years, one of which was the Muskegon Air Fair. The other loss was the closing last year of Great Lakes Downs.

The annual air show began in 1984. The last one was in 2006, the fifth in a row to lose money. But all agree it did bring a lot of people to Muskegon one weekend each summer.

"In the past, the entire hotel was packed by the air show," said Patel. He said Bike Time, a downtown event on a July weekend that brought an estimated 50,000 people last year, its first time, has generated a lot of interest and is "kind of replacing the air show," but he said he could not tell yet if it will prove to be an annual boon for the lodging industry.

The closing of Great Lakes Downs did mean the loss of some room nights in the spring and fall, said Patel.

Foreman said the closing of Great Lakes Downs did not have a major impact on tourism in Muskegon. Horse racing is less of a family activity, and Foreman said Muskegon will continue to have its "family-friendly focus."

Recreational boating is, to some extent, a family activity and it is suffering this year.

"I hate being negative — but it is negative this year," said Ed Geerlings, general manager of Great Lakes Marina.

Diehard boaters will go out anyway, but in general, more boats will stay in dock this summer due to the cost of fuel, said Geerlings. Many will make fewer trips and shorter trips, he said.

"I think that with boating, everyone thinks it's a rich man's sport, and it's not," he said, commenting on the family activity he sees on boats each summer weekend. Great Lakes Marina has 276 slips, one of the largest marinas in West Michigan.

As if the high cost of fuel weren't enough of a problem, some boaters have another issue with gasoline these days — the addition of ethanol in much of the gas now sold in America.

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