DETROIT — Although data released Monday by Michigan State University show state tourism still suffering, one Michigan attraction has discovered a new way to draw tourists — bring them in by the busload.
"Before we did this, we were just the remote location between Mackinac and Frankenmuth," said Jack Matthias, whose Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman specializes in elk-viewing carriage and sleigh rides, wine-tasting dinners and golf.
Set west of Alpena in Montmorency County, Thunder Bay saw its business plummet along with the Michigan economy after 2003 — and Matthias had to lay off 27 of his 80 employees.
"It's like someone attacked my customer base," he said.
Then about three years ago, he tried one more thing — partnering with new attractions in his area to lure tourists to the remote corner of northeast lower Michigan.
They set up a series of two- and three-night itineraries designed to entice the motorcoach tour industry. They advertised in publications such as Bus Tours Magazine — and it worked.
In 2007, Thunder Bay had 30 buses filled with 85% out-of-state tourists, double what Matthias had before. In 2008, he got 43, some from as far away as North Carolina. This year, 65 to 66 are already booked "and we are hoping to get 80," Matthias said.
One busload of tourists can spend $5,000 to $6,000 a day.
Heidi Dewald, marketing director of Michigan Sunrise Tours in Au Gres, designs the tours.
A typical tour may include elk-viewing and wine-tasting at Thunder Bay (most tours stay overnight there), a cruise on Lake Huron to Charity Island to see a lighthouse, a visit to the Great Lakes Maritime Museum in Alpena, and a ride on the Au Sable River Queen Paddle Boat in Au Gres.
The fact that the region is off the beaten tourist path works in their favor. Why? It seems exotic to out-of-state tourists. "They love the outdoors, and the golf and the elk," Dewald said.
With Michigan tourism and tourist spending predicted to fall 3% to 4% this year, and state hotel occupancy at 52%, Matthias is grateful to every busload of tourists that rumbles into his resort (www.thunderbayresort.com, 800-729-9375).
"Some said this segment was declining and wasn't worth pursuing," he said. "Not true — we are getting great reviews from guests and lots of repeats."
Source: Detroit Free Press