Michigan Responds to Fuel Price Surge
As gas prices soar to nearly $4 a gallon and the economy flails, vacation spots in Michigan are throwing out bones to attract tourists, according to the Detroit Free Press.
"It's a way for my guests to feel they are getting a deal, an advantage over those who aren't getting a gas card," said Cathy Russell, owner of the bed and breakfast that is north of Muskegon, Mich. When guests bring a bag of food for the local food pantry, she gives them a $40 discount to help pay for gasoline.
"That way, I get a booking, they get a discount and the food pantry gets a donation," she said. "There's no fine print."
That type of creative mom-and-pop promotion may help save the state's summer tourism season, which gloomy forecasts predict will fall 2% while the prices of traveling – such as hotel rates and attraction fees – rise 2% to 4%.
About 1.3 million Michiganders are still expected to travel at least 50 miles from home over Memorial Day weekend, similar to 2007, AAA data show. The bad news? More travelers plan to take shorter trips to save gas.
That's why gasoline cards and fuel promotions may be an effective marketing tools for hotels this year, said Steve Yencich, president of the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association, which represents lodging providers in the state.
"They're doing it to address the perception that gas has become too expensive, but in all honesty, I do not think families will cancel vacation plans because of $4 gas," he said. "Most destinations in the state can be reached in one tank of gas or less."
No state agency or tourism group keeps track of gas-card deals. The Free Press found several simply by searching the Internet.
Staying close to home
Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula may suffer the most from the gas-economy punch.
"We live in vacation land, but I just don't see folks coming up," said Mark Dobias, 52, of Sault Ste. Marie. He plans no big summer trip beyond going 22 miles west to his cabin.
High gas prices may boost tourism in the southern half of Michigan, which is closer to population centers.
Aurora LaLonde, 33, will stick close to her Saginaw home for vacation this summer.
"Being a single mom, my resources are limited, and even with the economic stimulus check I received just last week, I won't have any money to go up to the UP," she said. "It looks like, at most, Tawas City and Caseville for day trips."
Dave Lorenz, director of publicity for Travel Michigan, the state's tourism promotion arm, said he's rooting for what he calls "stay-cations" – Michiganders staying in the state for summer vacation. Travel Michigan lists specials travelers can get by e-mail at www.michigan.org.
Meanwhile, tourism providers are racking their brains for anything that will work to drum up business.
That's how the DNR's Gas Savvy Camper Storage program was born. Bookings at DNR campgrounds are down 3.5% this year. Memorial Day bookings were at 80%, as of Monday.
"We were sitting around thinking: You lug a trailer, and that's a lot of gas. What if we could create a storage program for regular campers?" said Harold Herta, chief of resource management for the DNR's parks and recreation division. They recently chose 30 parks, mostly in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula for the free pilot program this year. Campers can park their boat or trailer instead of towing it home for up to 15 days.
Not everyone's on board with offering deals, though.
Dan Musser, president of the Grand Hotel, is a bit skeptical of gas cards.
"In the past, we have made deals with Marathon Oil to offer them," he said. "I don't really think it moved the bar on anything."
Better than a gas card is the fact that on motor-vehicle-free Mackinac Island, you don't even use a car, he said: "Once you get here, you won't spend a dime on gasoline."
Will gas-card deals work to attract out-of-state visitors to Michigan? They may not be much of a factor, compared with the stronger draws of family ties.
Joe Lahti of St. Louis will vacation, as always, with friends and family in Detroit and on the Wisconsin-western Michigan border. He's not giving up his Michigan vacation just because of gas prices. He does have one suggestion that would have tourists flocking to Michigan, though:
"Maybe the tourism department can hand out $2.99 gas cards to out-of-state travelers," he said, "kind of like what Chrysler is doing to entice people to buy their cars."