Even as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 devastated Michigan’s business sector, the state’s tourism and golf industry received an unexpected shot in the arm, courtesy of the deadly virus.
As government-mandated stay-at-home orders were loosened early last summer, cabin-fevered shut-ins, including local residents and people from neighboring states, hit the roads and headed to northern Michigan.
That stampede to the outdoors showed up in unexpected surges in tee times at golf courses, sold-out apparel and equipment in sporting goods stores, and overflowing parking lots at state parks and campgrounds. Seemingly every available boat was put to work, from sailing ships and powerboats to Wave Runners and covered pontoons.
“It was crazy,” says Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Tourism Bureau. “We saw people (who wanted) to get outside coming here in record numbers. As we started opening up, June was OK, July was pretty good, August was really, really good, and September and October were fantastic.”
As virus infection rates subside and the pace of vaccinations accelerates, tourism industry officials are optimistic that last year’s surge in first-time visitors to the state bodes well for this coming season.
A sign of those good vibes is reflected in American Airlines scheduling three new daily nonstop routes this summer into Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport. New arriving and departing flights from Boston, Philadelphia, and Charlotte, N.C., will bring 17 nonstop daily passenger shuttles per day (both inbound and outbound) to Traverse City.
On Mackinac Island, fudge shop and hospitality baron Bob Benser Jr. isn’t ready to predict a return to pre-pandemic years, when 1 million visitors normally showed up in the summer season, but he, too, is enthused about this year’s prospects. “Our advance booking on the hotel side is pretty good,” he says. “People still want to come here and experience our fresh air, fresh water, and open spaces.”
Benser and his family own the Original Murdick’s Fudge shop and its five spinoff stores, all or part of the Chippewa, Lilac Tree, and Mackinac House hotels, the Cottage Inn B&B, the Pink Pony restaurant and store, the Good Day Café, and the Island Slice Pizzeria.
Those businesses and others, like the Grand Hotel, should see a further return to normalcy with the restoration of a seasonal guest worker program that for decades brought hundreds of mostly Jamaican workers to the island. The Trump administration canceled the program last year, forcing Benser to keep one fudge shop closed, reduce hours on others, and offer $200 bonuses to employees for each friend they recruited to fill a job.
Andrew Doud and his partner, Veronica Bobrowolski, who operate the popular Sip n’ Sail cruises along the straits under the Mackinac Bridge on the 81-foot Isle Royale Queen III, are optimistically gearing up for normalcy by adding a daily evening cruise to a lineup that includes sunset, craft beer, and Sunday morning mimosa cruises. “Mackinac is a great outdoor venue,” Doud says. “While some businesses struggle, others thrive.”
Beachnau says Gaylord-area merchants reported off-the-chart sales for outdoor equipment — bicycles, kayaks, standup paddleboards, hunting and fishing gear, hiking shoes, and more. “You couldn’t buy any of that equipment anywhere, they were all sold out. Plus, state hunting and fishing license issuances were up double digits, as was trail use, and parking lots for state parks and campgrounds were filled.”
The midsummer influx of vehicle traffic kept Gaylord’s overall business losses last year at around 25 percent, a decline Beachnau says wasn’t horrible under the circumstances. This year’s prospects look even better, with a number of new projects coming on line. In July, a Comfort Inn and Suites hotel will open in the central business district. Of the 87 rooms, 27 will be Gaylord’s first extended stay offerings.
Visitors this season will also be able to enjoy the completed $1.1 million Gaylord Gateway Trailhead project, which includes a pavilion with outdoor seating, restrooms, a parking area, and bike racks. Part of the all-season Iron Belle Trail is really two tracks; one covers 1,204 miles for hiking, while a biking pathway runs 828 miles and extends from the western Upper Peninsula into the Lower Peninsula, through Otsego County, and ends on Belle Isle in Detroit.
Meanwhile, five of northern Michigan’s largest resorts — Boyne, Grand Traverse, Crystal Mountain, Manistee National, and Treetops, which market their combined 23 golf courses as America’s Summer Golf Capital — say the boom in vehicle traffic drove up rounds played at those courses between 20 percent and 30 percent over 2019. “We saw a huge boost in drive traffic from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, so hopefully we’ll retain those folks and get a boost from markets (that are farther away), as well,” says Charlie Olson, a spokesman for the resorts. “We’re expecting a really strong summer.”
Bernie Friedrich, senior vice president for golf operations and resort sales, who oversees the 10 golf courses at Boyne Resort properties in Boyne Falls, Harbor Springs, and Petoskey, says it was gratifying to see the renewed interest in golf, especially coming off an uncertain year and a decade-long decline in rounds played. The downhill momentum left resort owners scrambling to grow the game. “The pandemic created an environment in which golf thrived,” he says. “Our courses benefited, and local golf courses also did very well.”
Players who might have given up on the game, beginners who had put off learning to play golf, or duffers who just wanted to get some fresh air and move around boosted tee-time sales and blunted revenue losses, he adds.
Boyne’s sharp uptick in golf reflects national trends. The National Golf Foundation reported more than 500 million rounds were played last year, a 14 percent increase. That’s 60 million more rounds than were recorded in 2019.
The surge in tee times helped soften the negative impact on Boyne’s bottom line due to the closing of the U.S.-Canadian border. “Despite losing our Canadian business, which accounts for 10 percent to 14 percent of our annual revenue, the second half of the summer and the fall was so strong we came out about the same as 2019,” Friedrich says.
To keep the momentum going, Boyne will bring back another outdoor wrinkle introduced last year that proved popular with parents and younger children. “We closed a range on Sundays last year and let the kids play games around the flags while the parents could sit, relax and have a drink, and still keep track of everyone,” Friedrich says.
Embracing technology, this summer Boyne will install a TrackMan golf simulator at the Highlands resort. The simulator allows players to practice shots with instant pinpoint accuracy and data feedback. It also allows participants to virtually play world-famous courses that appear in stunning detail on digital screens. “We’ll have 35 to 40 hitting bays for players to come out and have fun,” Friedrich says. “They can have closest to the pin contests, longest drive, and other games on the TrackMan program.”
With the pandemic picture improving in the state, Friedrich is looking for a more normal golf and tourism season ahead. “We’ll book golf all summer and fall, and so far our sales for this year are even with previous years,” he says.
Barry Owens, general manager of Treetops Resort in Gaylord, shares Friedrich’s optimism. “It was really exciting seeing all that traffic we had later in the summer and fall, especially since we started with such uncertainty. We lost a month and a half off the books,” Owens says. “Our rounds were down about 10 percent in 2020, but we feel good about our early bookings this year.”
Like Friedrich, Owens is encouraged by feedback from provisional early bookings. “With vaccinations and the elimination of the spread of the virus, we have every reason to feel good about where we’re going this season,” he says, especially given the latest round of capital improvement renovations now underway at the resort. After a $4.5-million face-lift three years ago transformed 98 hotel rooms, lobbies, and swimming pools, the property’s environmental infrastructure is now getting a $2.9-million makeover.
“Some guests will see it, and some will feel it,” Owens says of the improvements that will update heating, cooling, and ventilation systems; improve control systems for interior and exterior lighting, and plumbing and water systems; put a new roof on the convention center; and make other upgrades designed to drastically reduce the resort’s carbon footprint.
In turn, a cluster of older chalets will be gutted this year and rebuilt into six, two-bedroom units. Another half-dozen three-bedroom units, each designed to accommodate families, couples, or groups who want to play and stay together, will also be added.
In a nod to nostalgia, in July a celebration will mark the 20th anniversary of PGA Tour player Lee Trevino making what is believed to be the most valuable single swing ever in golf: a hole-in-one with a $1 million prize made during a nationally televised match on the so-called Threetops Par-3 course. Trevino is expected to return to the resort for a charity event, and he’ll hit shots with players on the same seventh hole of the Threetops course where he made the million-dollar shot.
Headlining the state’s golf scene this summer, the new American Dunes Golf Club in Grand Haven is a tribute to the United States’ military servicemen and women, and the sacrifices they’ve made for their country. The club is the brainchild of Dan Rooney, a PGA professional, Iraq war veteran, and an F-16 fighter pilot who holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Rooney took over the dated, tree-lined, 56-year-old Grand Haven Golf Club from his parents in 2018, and decided to renovate it into a revenue-generator for the Folds of Honor Foundation he started in 2007. The foundation provides higher education scholarships to the children and spouses of military members killed in action. To date, the group has raised more than $20 million and awarded 4,000 scholarships.
When Rooney approached Jack Nicklaus about the project, he signed on, waived his customary $3 million fee, and designed a signature course less than a mile from Lake Michigan. After removing more than 1,000 trees and exposing the rolling sandy dunes landscape, Nicklaus produced a stunning 18-hole course that received rave reviews from people who played it during an early preview last fall. A military-themed lodge with 16 suites is scheduled to open next year.
Rooney pledges that all profits from the club will go to the foundation, and active or retired service members can play at a discount.
Other major public course renovations and additions on display this season can be found at the Saskatoon Golf Club near Grand Rapids and the Washtenaw Golf Club, west of downtown Ypsilanti, which is one of the state’s oldest layouts, dating to 1899.
Michigan architect Ray Hearn used a 1937 aerial image of the Washtenaw course to restore some of its original design features, which made the layout more playable. At Saskatoon, Paul Albanese, and his mentor, Jerry Matthews, designed a new nine-hole course, the Silver Nine, which will complement the club’s current 36 holes.
At age 80, and with dozens of golf courses on his resume, Nicklaus says the American Dunes Golf Club stands out. “It was fun, a really fun project,” he says. “And the real fun of the project is knowing that what you’re doing is going to benefit a lot of families (and) a lot of kids.”