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Northern Michigan could see tourism increase this fall — but all is not well Up North

Courtesy Legs Inn


A steady stream of visitors to resort areas in northern Michigan over the summer exceeded national tourism averages. But local businesses are still hurting from lost revenue during the state’s COVID-19 lockdown, and are now putting their hopes into fall tourism.

Driving some optimism is the question of how online school may affect travel, as more families may take advantage of the flexibility of virtual school and venture north.

Many businesses are quick to welcome visitors, but seasonal turnover issues magnified by the pandemic may keep them from taking advantage. Chief among them: many businesses are so short-staffed, they’re forced to close their doors.

Legs Inn, located at the end of the “Tunnel of Trees” on M-119, is usually jam-packed seven days a week, even in the slower month of September.

But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the restaurant to scale back its operation. For the first time in its 90-plus year history, the family business closed two days a week because they’re severely short staffed.

“We even have signage placed on the building for guests basically apologizing for having to close, because we know people travel great distances to visit us,” says Co-owner Mark Smolak.

The restaurant typically hires more than a dozen young international workers on exchange programs for the summer, Smolak explains. But this year, because of the coronavirus travel restrictions, the workers couldn’t make it to the U.S. That's meant Legs Inn relies on fewer staff, who work longer shifts. 

“We’re extremely busy, which puts a huge load on the people that basically work five straight days,” says George Smolak, who’s run the business for more than 30 years.

The Smolaks say their exhausted employees are trying to hang on until the restaurant’s usual closing date in mid-October. They’re usually pretty busy during the peak "fall colors" season.

Mark says he’s seen more families visiting recently and he expects more this fall, as some take advantage of remote work and school.

“Almost every day we’re talking to guests who have been here for the first time,” Mark says. “It’s something we’ve noticed more than ever before.”

Diane Dakins, the assistant director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, says local innkeepers report more people are booked for stays than is typical this time of year.

More fall visitors would be a nice reprieve for the local economy, she says. Emmet County’s summer tourism is down by 20% this year.

Trevor Tkach, the president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, says his staff, many of whom have young children, don’t believe the hype about a surge in travel Up North this fall.

“We debate it on a daily basis at the office. We ask each other, are you going to travel?” he says.

The answer from his team is a resounding “no.”

Tkach’s perspective is bleak. He says destination meetings and conferences used to fill up hotel rooms in the fall, but now they’ve all been canceled. 

Many of northern Michigan’s fall visitors also happen to be older adults, Tkach says. Recent national surveys he’s looked at show about 40% of them don’t feel comfortable traveling right now.

Even if these expectations were surpassed, he says the widespread shortage of hospitality staff means hotels wouldn’t be able to clean rooms fast enough.

“If you had 500 rooms or 600 rooms, you only have people to clean 200 rooms,” Tkach says.

Northern Michigan businesses of all types are struggling to find and retain workers.

The Speedway on the busy intersection between Front Street and North Division in Traverse City is now closed for at least a month because of the pandemic.

Fresh Coast Market, a local grocer on North Long Lake Road, took to its Facebook page to beg for job applicants.

Daykins and Tkatch say there’s a few reasons why businesses aren’t able to hire during the pandemic. Among them, struggles with child care, issues obtaining international work visas, and fewer job seekers among students and seasonal workers.

Daykins says the lack of government unemployment payments may have played a role in fewer applicants. But she’s also seen many semi-or-fully-retired workers, who normally take retail positions, staying home for safety reasons.

“If you are working in an environment where there are a lot of young people and a lot of extra contact, that is frightening,” she says.

Emmet County cases of COVID-19 more than doubled over the month of August. By August 31, the state recorded 119 cases there.

In a press conference on Sept. 3, Medical Director for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan Josh Meyerson says that was partly due to out-of-town vacationers who likely brought the virus with them.

“There seems to be a relationship between the areas that see a lot of tourists and visitors with an increase in cases. And I don’t think the Emmet County region is an exception to that at all,” he said.

COVID-19 cases throughout northern Michigan are low compared to other parts of the state and country. But Dakens says the unknown risk plus other added headaches make it harder to market these jobs.

“It’s pretty hard to convince someone to come not only work their tail feathers off, but deal with customers that are less than happy,” she says.

Mark Smolak agrees a few customers at Legs Inn haven’t been understanding about longer wait times, which are caused by staffing shortages and 50% indoor occupancy restrictions from the state.

“It’s manifesting itself where people aren’t really as willing to comply with things, they’re not as patient and their expectations of things are what they would be under a normal climate of operation,” he says.

Luckily, he says, that’s been kept to a minimum.

Tkach says even with the added challenges this year, he figures northern Michigan will be resilient.

“We always find a way,” he says. “That’s the one thing I’ll say about the hospitality industry. It tends to find a way to pull things off.”

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.