By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
Like the bear recently spotted near Stevensville, tourists are beginning to come out of hibernation in Southwest Michigan.
Several area agencies, whose main focus is tourism, have begun to notice and are beginning to prep for incoming visitors.
Viki Gudas, executive director for Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce, said the amount of tourists that come through Union Pier and Lakeside largely depends on the weather.
“The winter wasn’t too bad, but the spring is becoming a bit dismal,” she said. “The day trippers eventually get spring fever. As everything starts greening up, they start coming back.”
Gudas has been preparing the annual visitor’s guide, which includes the area’s information and lineup of festivals for the upcoming year. She said the first burst of people come during “Attack Week,” the chamber’s Art Attack festival from April 29 through May 1. The next influx of visitors arrive throughout Memorial Day Weekend.
The heaviest traffic comes shortly after, when summer vacations begin in Michigan’s border states.
“The appeal of relaxing in a small town that is a short distance from Chicago is the biggest appeal,” Gudas said.
Millicent Huminsky, executive director of Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, said her Benton Harbor-based organization plans to attract tourists this year through new and old ideas.
The council will have a new program toward the end of April called the “Makers Trail.” It would involve all the Berrien County wineries, spirit makers and breweries working together.
Huminsky said they will continue to target regional markets like Chicago and Indianapolis. She said there could even be more visitors in 2017, when two new hotels – one in Benton Township and another in Stevensville – open for summer reservations.
“We always need more product,” Huminsky said. “Lately, all the hotels seem to be booked in the summer. Those two new hotels might not be open in time for this summer, but they will definitely benefit the area for years to come.”
Bucks on the green
With the Senior PGA Championship taking place in May 24-29, Huminsky said the region is set to see its biggest influx of visitors yet.
While it’s hard to determine how many visit Southwest Michigan each year, Huminsky points to the 32 percent increase in 2015 through hotel assessment revenues.
“It’s hard to gauge how many visitors the area gets because a majority are daily visitors, who don’t spend time overnight,” she said.” There was a 32 percent uptick in hotel occupancy last year. Yet there were more day trippers than those who stayed overnight because of our closeness to larger markets like South Bend and Kalamazoo.”
The council doesn’t have one primary focus when promoting the Twin Cities area. Huminsky said they change their approach seasonally. A constant draw no matter what time of year seems to be the wineries and breweries. However, Huminsky is quick to name Lake Michigan as the biggest attraction throughout the summer.
“I’ve been here 31 years and we have increased year after year,” Huminsky said in regards to the number of visitors. “Tourism is a product that takes time to build. What we are seeing today is the result of what has been going on for more than two decades.”
St. Joseph Today Executive Director Whitney Behnke said they are engaging residents and visitors across social media, while continuing to push information about events coming to downtown St. Joseph.
“Every week I go on the radio and talk about these events we have planned,” Behnke said. “We are in the thick of planning out Antiques on the Bluff and Chalk the Block. All the dates have been set, we’re just working out some of those nitty-gritty details.”
From promoting retailers to restaurants, Behnke said she anticipates the crowds to begin taking over downtown St. Joseph the weekend before the Senior PGA Tournament. Behnke said they look at that time as a good indicator of the tourism based on how many visitors are tracked at the Welcome Center.
St. Joseph Today has a relatively new staff, so Behnke doesn’t want to change too much early on. She said she plans to see how things run this summer season and adjust accordingly. However, with a Pure Michigan commercial debuting its first fall promotion of Southwest Michigan, Behnke said it has the potential to extend the tourism season into the fall.
“There is so much more beyond the beach,” Behnke said. “I’m really hoping to see visitors engaging with the community, getting to know downtown merchants.”