Small Business & Startups and Travel & Tourism

Discovering Michigan beckons travelers to the region

GR travel agency inspires interest in West Michigan.

July 28, 2017
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Discover Michigan
Candice Fleszar-Smith (left), Discovering Michigan operations and communications manager, leads a group on a city tour. Photo by Ehren Wynder

In response to an increased interest from local tourists to experience West Michigan, Grand Rapids-based Discovering Michigan opened its doors to the domestic market.

Previously, the travel agency only serviced tourists on the international market, mainly South America and Europe, but as of March, it opened its doors to local and out-of-state clients. Discovering Michigan hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for its new office in McKay Tower, 146 Monroe Center St. NW, on July 19.

José and Nayhara Schwarz formed Discovering Michigan in 2014 as a travel agency for international visitors. The Schwarzes started as travel agents with another company but wanted to form their own to keep tourism alive in Michigan.

“Grand Rapids, it’s beautiful — the lakes up north, just crazy,” Nayhara said. “Then we were like, ‘You know what, let’s start to do this and bring people in instead of sending people off.’”

The Schwarzes emigrated to the U.S. from São Paulo, Brazil, in 2009 and moved to Michigan in 2011. From family feedback, they realized their home state had a lot to offer tourists from out of state and out of country, but they needed help in promoting that message.

“Everybody that was coming to visit us, family, friends, they were like, ‘Whoa, we never imagined Michigan was like that. I’ve never heard about this place,’” Nayhara said.

Nayhara Schwarz said promoting tourism to Michigan is a problem because most international tourists want to travel to higher profile states like New York, California or Florida. The challenge is convincing them to come, even though the cost of flying into Grand Rapids is expensive. To keep costs down, they would fly visitors to Chicago and then shuttle them to Grand Rapids.

“It’s frustrating because if they’re flying to Michigan, they’re bringing even more money to Michigan,” Nayhara Schwarz said. “It’s a way to make it cheaper for them to fly in.”

But to pull people in, the company markets the cost of shopping in Michigan as comparatively better than in higher profile locations.

“If you go to do shopping in Chicago, shopping in New York … you need to be, like, really, really rich,” Nayhara said.

Besides convincing visitors to spend their money in state, the company also has a market in attracting workers from out of state to local companies to strengthen the job market.

Discovering Michigan also promotes the image of Grand Rapids as a smaller, friendlier city, where people greet each other as they pass on the street, as opposed to the rush of a larger city like New York or Chicago.

Discovering Michigan has a partner campaign with Pure Michigan in Europe but virtually no marketing campaign in South America. At present, they rely on social media and word-of-mouth. Grand Rapids’ reputation as Beer City recently attracted beer bloggers from Brazil who wanted to experience it and promote the city as a travel destination for beer enthusiasts.

The company wanted to step up its game by providing more education and information than visitors would get in a regular beer tour.

“We’re much more focused on the experience of knowing what you have if you’re drinking a beer, and like, in the head of the beer, that’s where the aroma comes in — maybe the type of hops that’s used,” said Candice Fleszar-Smith, operations and communications manager for Discovering Grand Rapids.

Since opening up to domestic tourists, Discovering Michigan has experienced an increase in local visitors on its city tours, which Fleszar-Smith said can be educational even for people who have lived their whole lives in the city.

“When I get somebody on the tour who grew up on the West Side, and they’re in their 50s, and they’ve been here their whole life, and they’re like, ‘What? Really? I never knew that!’” Fleszar-Smith said. “And it’s so fun to just open their eyes in different ways.”

Eighty percent of the company’s clients have been domestic, and 20 percent have been international. The company organizes a city or beer tour almost every day, which is a big pull for local visitors.

Discovering Michigan also provides tours in Traverse City and day trips to wineries in northern Michigan. Tours are customizable for visitors’ travel arrangements. The company helps organize bachelor parties, birthdays, anniversaries and company retreats. They also have a partnership with Amigo Mobility Center to provide transportation services for disabled visitors.

“We do everything, from the beginning to the end. We handle transportation. We handle the hotel, lodges, food — they just need to show up,” Nayhara Schwarz said.

They also listen to customer feedback to provide new ideas for tours.

“I never thought of doing an urban renewal tour until I had people on my tours who are really interested in that,” Fleszar-Smith said. “We’re developing one on Medical Mile right now because of (the) interest of people who are coming on the tours.”

Soon, Discovering Michigan will be organizing “ghost and beer” tours, by which visitors can learn about Grand Rapids’ “haunted history” and end the tour with a stop at a local brewery.

For the future, Discovering Michigan is working the receptive market to provide more experiences based on what people want when coming to Michigan.

“When they see the crystal clear waters up north, the breweries, the vineyards, the people — there’s no way not to fall in love,” Nayhara Schwarz said.

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