Wednesday, 01 February 2017 13:00

Evergreen Cities: How art, museums and infrastructure keep West Michigan busy year-round

Written by  Jane Simons
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Snowshoeing at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex Snowshoeing at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex COURTESY PHOTO

There is a widely-held belief among the snow-averse that Michigan pretty much shuts down between December and March.

The truth is that plummeting temperatures and continuous snowfall combine to generate an annual $3 billion in revenue for businesses focused on wintertime activities, such as skiing and snowmobiling, said Michelle Grinnell, director of public and media relations for Travel Michigan.

“Our calendar does not stop after Labor Day,” Grinnell said. “One of Michigan’s biggest attributes is that we are a four-season destination.”

While the word “winter” is not often associated with “ideal conditions,” for those who appreciate artisan brews, unique festivals and cultural activities, winter provides the perfect backdrop.

“Winter presents a whole new menu of recreational opportunities that people can’t experience any other time of the year,” Grinnell said. “We have the most ski resorts of any other state, with the exception of New York.”

Those seeking winter indoor activities have contributed to the growing popularity of events celebrating Michigan’s craft beer industry. Beer festivals in particular are becoming standard ammunition in the arsenal of wintertime events that tourism professionals in Southwest Michigan rely on to bring people in.

“Marketing Grand Rapids as Beer City, USA has been a huge success,” said Stephanie Kotscehvar, public relations specialist for Experience Grand Rapids. “With beer tourism on the rise, Experience Grand Rapids commissioned for a Beer Tourism Economic Study in 2015 and found that beer tourism was driving $12.23 million in economic output in Kent County.”

Similarly, a Craft Beer Week started several years ago by Imperial Beverage in Kalamazoo began with 15 events over a five-day period and has since grown to more than 350 events over an eight-day period of time.

“We’re a little-known destination, so people don’t know what we have to offer,” Newman said. “We’re not like a larger urban area and we don’t have a huge budget to promote Kalamazoo. But we know if we get somebody here once, they will come back again.”

The key, Grinnell said, is offering experiences and opportunities that are unique, which doesn’t necessarily stop with creative event development.

Infrastructure improvements in Holland came in the form of an expansive snowmelt system, the largest municipal system in the United States, which helped to make the winter experience there more attractive to visitors.

The installation of that snowmelt system in 1986 gave Holland tourism officials the ability to really market the city as a winter destination, said Sally Hallan Laukitis, executive director for the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We operate a Winter Farmer’s Market the first Saturday of the month, January through March,” Laukitis said. “Because of the snowmelt system, we don’t face the challenges that other communities do.”

Holland also has the advantage of being able to capitalize on strong ties to its Dutch heritage, including events like Kerstmarkt, a European Christmas Mart that began in 1997, and a Parade of Lights, which features a visit with Sinterklaas, the Netherlands Santa Claus.

Laukitis said a delegation from her organization met with the Marketmasters in Holland and saw their Kerstmarkt plans, which were 500 years old. During a trade mission to the Netherlands in the mid-90s, they witnessed St. Michaelmas Eve, which led to the light festival.

“During St. Michaelmas, the children go door-to-door, sing songs and receive candy in return,” Laukitis said. “We thought it would be fun to recreate this with a lantern event in Holland.”

Oftentimes, it’s more about maintaining the buzz of already successful events and attractions than coming up with a laundry list of brand new initiatives.

Kalamazoo’s monthly Art Hops, for instance, continues to grow in both the quality of the art and the event footprint. Meanwhile, Grand Rapids places a continual emphasis on its indoor cultural venues, such as the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, which offer ever-changing exhibits.

Grinnell said it’s all about taking the wraps off the state’s hidden gems and best-kept secrets, such as Muskegon’s Winter Sports Complex, which has one of only four public luge runs in the United States and also offers a lit ice-skating trail through the woods.

It is not uncommon for tourism officials in Southwest Michigan communities to work with each other. The feeling is that if a person starts out in one community, they may venture to others that are in close proximity.

“Specifically, we promote regional visits that might include a visit to an event like Tulip Time or Coast Guard Festival or an attraction like Michigan’s Adventure,” Kotschevar said. “We believe in collaboration with the surrounding areas and the state as a whole, because it helps raise awareness. When Michigan and the surrounding areas are doing well, that typically influences travel to other communities.”

Grinnell said Michigan remains a market during the winter months and attracts residents from neighboring states such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

“We really want people to embrace winter and encourage them to take a Pure Michigan snow day,” she said. “We have a lot to offer and we want to make sure that the word gets out.”

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