An injection of tourism gives Michigan a boost

November 14, 2011

Jocelyn Frank

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The last decade was an especially tough one for Michigan: The state had the highest unemployment figures in the country for four years straight, peaking around 14 percent. Over the last decade, the population in 15 of its 20 largest cities shrank. It faced the near collapse of the auto industry and a national bailout.

But the state is working to change its luck with tourism. Right in the middle of all its economic woes the Pure Michigan campaign was born. Its advertisements on radio, TV, and billboards celebrate the “kick-back and relax” spirit of the state, encouraging visitors to “take time to smell the roses,” or in this case, “take time to walk along the thousands of miles of freshwater coastlines.”

Mark Canavan is the creative director for Pure Michigan. He's a 40-something guy with casual clothes and a gentle confidence. In 2006 he was hired by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a public-private state marketing agency, to develop a campaign to grab the attention of residents, drive traffic to Michigan.org and boost the overall state tourism market.

He admits he had his work cut out for him. “People had an image of Detroit with its manufacturing and automotive history," Canavan says. "But we really kind of had to re-awaken and refocus on what the state was all about.”

The Pure Michigan ads celebrate the state’s traditions: "Hundreds of lakes, thousands of rivers and streams, begging you to hang up, gone camping, gone swimming, gone sailing…”

But what about the gone jobs and the gone 401 K’s? What about gone homes, foreclosed left and right? The Pure Michigan campaign ploughed full speed ahead without dwelling on that. The campaign burst through the recession’s darkest days and dared people to think differently.  

Canavan says that the Pure Michigan campaign inspires different thinking because it was created with a different approach. As a lifelong resident of the state, he decided that Michigan’s ads couldn’t compete with other states using “destination” or “attraction” tourism. He is proud of the approach they chose. “All we did was we just tilted the lens a little, to say how you’re going to feel there," he says. "That changed everything.”

Feeling good in Michigan

Turns out, reminding people that they can feel good in Michigan works. According to a study by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the market research group Longwoods International, 2 million new visitors came to Michigan in 2010, spending an additional $605 million.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder decided to endorse and help fund the Pure Michigan campaign with an annual $25 million.

Critics of the campaign say cash-strapped Michigan shouldn’t be dishing out money to advertise for private tourism companies, but others, like Mark Canavan, argue that the campaign is earning its keep. For every $1 it spends to promote the state, it brings in over $3.

The boost in tourism seems to be having a ripple effect across the state.

Universities training young people to stay

Andrea McNeal is a student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. She says she will stay in the state after she graduates, bucking the trend of many of her peers.

McNeal is pursuing the new geo-tourism degree aimed at leveraging the success of the Pure Michigan campaign to get into fresh jobs. In 2010, the tourism industry added 10,000 new positions.

Geo-tourism professor Kelly Victor-Burke notes that tourism is the second largest industry in the state, so she encourages her students study hospitality, speech making, and geographic information systems, and perhaps most importantly, to travel "to restaurants from the farm to table movement...to lighthouses." Students are not just experiencing location, she says. They're "meeting the people and seeing the opportunity.”

Showcasing opportunities could help reverse the state's brain drain, according to Victor-Burk. “We’re really sending the message that we want our graduates to continue to work in Michigan,” she says.

Life in a tourist town

Travel a few hours north on Route 23 and the discussion of tourism and employment moves from an academic one to one of survival.

Alcona, Mich. is about 4 hours drive north of Detroit. The small town is right on the shore of Lake Huron, with beautiful views and a quaint lighthouse in the distance. It’s a thriving tourist destination during the summers, but in the off-seasons, it’s much quieter.

Just about five miles up the road from the lake, high school students are thinking about new ways to create businesses using local know-how.

Building entrepreneurs

Brian Matchet stands in a large room, about the size of a gymnasium. But instead of dust bunnies and old candy wrappers in the corners, this place is filled with evidence of creative agricultural and science-based projects. This is “the shop.”

Matchet is an instructor at Alcona High School. In this one-stoplight town, only about 5 percent of students go on to university programs like those at EMU. The options for staying home, Matchet explains, aren’t too good either. “I heard I think we were at 18 to 19 percent unemployment in the county," he says. "There are few that find jobs here. But hopefully that will change in the future.”

Tourism is not going to be a cure-all for places like Alcona, but Pure Michigan’s success fuels Matchet's optimism. He helps his students develop small businesses with the potential to tap into tourist markets.

One successful student idea already in the works is located just a tractor ride away from the shop.

Go past the two sports fields and several parking lots and standing on a back lot is a small log cabin. It’s the Alcona Sugar Shack.

Amanda Coutts is the manager of syrup production for this school year and she says, “it does feel like a business.”

Students tap trees, process the sap, bottle, label, and sell it. It’s a moneymaking operation and Amanda is quick to point out that every year they throw a syrup celebration day. “Everybody comes out and we make pancakes, sausage, and have breakfast with our syrup," she says. "There are lots of people that come out for it.” 

Students produce 200 gallons of syrup every year. Brian Matchet talks proudly of how his students learn to be smart entrepreneurs, cut costs, and take their ideas out into the real world. “Two students wanted to sell firewood to tourists so they got permission from their grandpa to cut down trees on his property, they split the fire wood, bundled it, and went to gas stations to sell it," he boasts. "Within a month, they made enough to each buy their own chainsaws.”

They kept earning money, and eventually helped put themselves through college. “Maybe not ironically, they’re both live back in the community so it’s neat to see that cycle come around as well,” Matchet adds.

It’s a small victory, a successful firewood business in Alcona, especially when compared to the great assembly line factories of Michigan’s past, with their steady jobs and secure retirements. Even with the most successful advertising campaign, those economic glory days may be gone forever. Michigan is something else now, but Pure Michigan is helping people here feel something they haven’t had a lot of in a while: hope.