Tourism Excellence North’s first Best Practices Mission departed Sault Ste. Marie early on June 16th with a full slate of enthusiastic participants who come from all aspects of Northern Ontario’s tourism industry. The four-day mission visited tourism sites in Northern Michigan to observe, learn and implement best practices back in Northern Ontario.
The night before: The group met at the Quattro Hotel, Sault Ste. Marie, for a meet-and-greet. Participants met Facilitator Chris Hughes, from BC Hughes, and each other. The Handbook/Workbook and Agendas were distributed. There was lots of excitement about the itinerary and heads were buried in books for quite a while. Everyone was really excited to head out the next day!
June 16, Day 1 of Best Practices Mission, Traverse City, Michigan: The bus pulled out of the Quattro Hotel at 7 am. Crossing the US/Canada border was a quick and friendly experience; very efficient Border Patrol.
The group arrived at Hotel Indigo, the accommodator for the trip. Lunch was provided by a local food co-op. The first impression of the Hotel was really welcoming, which had a lot to do with the reception stand outside the hotel with staff waiting there to greet the group.
Having only opened one year ago, Hotel Indigo was designed with thoughtful links to the area’s logging history. Standing among revamped lumberyards, sawmills and canneries, Hotel Indigo reflects the new life and vibrant spirit of the waterfront Warehouse District neighborhood.
Back on the bus! By around 1pm everyone was suited up in life jackets and headed out in kayaks to experience Paddle for Pints. It was perfect weather – hot! Lots of folks got happily soaked. People had great fun and enjoyed the craft breweries. The Paddle for Pints tour highlighted how easily tourism experiences can be created by packaging existing operators and trails together within a community to create additional tourism spending in downtowns.
Around 5:30pm the group returned to Hotel Indigo. What a great view of Grand Traverse Bay from the rooftop patio (many made plans to enjoy that some more later on!).
The group jumped back on the bus to head to Brengman Brothers vineyard, located on the Leelanau Peninsula, for a dinner catered by Blue Heron. The locally produced and sourced meal was lovely – particularly the fantastic wine pairing with dinner! The group learned that the Northern Michigan region has worked hard to diversify industries when mother nature hampered cherry season opportunities. Brengman Brothers vineyard is one such example of the diversification. The local lesson here is that if you’re not adapting, you are falling behind.
Back at Hotel Indigo after dinner. What a first day!
June 17, Day 2 of Best Practices Mission, Traverse City, Michigan:
Some early birds went to the Sara Hardy Farmers Market, one of the top three largest farmers’ markets in the state of Michigan, and then returned for breakfast in the Hotel Indigo dining room.
The group travelled from the Hotel to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore via the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. It was a beautiful drive through the woods. Our guide, Tom Ulrich, Deputy Superintendent for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, was outstanding. His passion for preserving the parkland was inspirational.
At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, while taking in a stunning view of Lake Michigan on the observation deck, the group discussed the role of natural attractions in tourism and strategies to encourage both increased visitation and spending at these non-gated attractions.
The group then travelled up the Peninsula to lunch in Leland, at The Cove. During lunch, two speakers — Amanda Holmes, Executive Director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, and Megan Olds, previous Director of Development at Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and President of Parallel Solutions – shared their perspectives on how small towns – even islands – can make big ideas happen with limited resources. The group came away with actionable ideas to implement in Northern Ontario. Participants also had some thoughtful discussion on community partnerships and what makes them work.
Back on the bus to Hotel Indigo for a bit of a breather. Next the group walked a quick 15 minutes to dinner and live music at The Little Fleet. What an innovative take on food trucks! Essentially, The Little Fleet opens their parking lot to an array of bustling and bimonthly rotating food trucks serving up delicious fare and inspired cuisine from both around the world and the local region. This innovative experience is just what today’s savvy travelers and consumers are looking for. Good music and good food rounded out the day.
June 18, Day 3 of Best Practices Mission, Traverse City, Michigan:
The group warmed up the day with a walk across the street to BLK MRKT. There’s always time for a great cup of local coffee! Owner and entrepreneur Chuck Korson gave participants insight into his business and shared his thoughts on how the public sector can leverage private sector businesses in relation to tourism.
The City Opera House presentation and tour was next. This historic building, first opened in 1892, is one of seven Victorian structures open state-wide and the only destination which features two world-class Performing Arts series. A group discussion with Executive Director, Diane Baribeau, sparked a conversation on how the public sector can support private sector operators to increase community and destination tourism.
The morning continued on with a downtown wayfinding tour and discussion. The group saw on-the-ground examples of signs working to silently support and answer questions visitors didn’t even know they had! The informative discussion brought to light the importance of proper signage and the mechanics of wayfinding for pedestrian and automotive traffic. A group discussion on the current signage (or, sometimes, lack of) in Northern Ontario communities was had, and participants identified initiatives to improve or expand wayfinding in their own tourism destinations.
Lunch was at the downtown Tuscan Bistro, where the wayfinding discussions continued.
The afternoon’s highlight was the tourism roundtable presentations. Held at the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, the group enjoyed a full afternoon of presentations about collaborative marketing, destination branding, visitor attraction, events and festivals and more. The Chamber of Commerce, Traverse City Tourism and the Traverse City Film Festival were all represented at the discussion. Much was learned about the successes, facts and figures of the Traverse City tourism industry and how an increased investment in tourism was a response to an economic downturn in 2008. There were many key take-aways from each speaker that warranted investigation back home in Northern Ontario.
Back on board the bus for Elk Rapids, home to just over 1,500 people and 30 km north of Traverse City, to enjoy dinner at Pearls New Orleans Kitchen. The dinner of southern specialities mixed with iconic New Orleans over the top flair proved that an authentic, different, experience can be offered to visitors no matter where your location (or size of location).
Back on bus to the Hotel (that rooftop lobby really comes in handy when one wants to unwind and chat just a bit longer!).
June 19, Day 4 of Best Practices Mission, Traverse City, Michigan:
After checking out of our Hotel, the group departed for Petoskey, Michigan, for a quick look at the Gaslight Downtown District before traveling to Mackinac Island via ferry. Petoskey is well known for the Petoskey stone, a six-sided ray of light pattern stone that is offered by many local businesses as a visit keepsake.
On Mackinac Island the group received a tour by Mackinac Revealed. Mackinac Island, known for drawing thousands of tourists to their shores (all without the use of any cars!), highlighted that being different stands out in terms of visitor attraction. The group got a behind-the-scenes understanding of what makes tourism on the Island work, how independent businesses have leveraged their notoriety to enhance their business and how investment attraction and product development work like a well-oiled machine when businesses stick to their roots and work collaboratively.
After lunch at the Tea Room, at Fort Mackinac, the group had some free time to wander and turn their thoughts to how this trip would impact their views on tourism back in Northern Ontario. Then back on the ferry for Mackinaw City, where the group shortly departed for Sault Ste. Marie.
The group arrived back at the Quattro Hotel at 5:30pm. Good-byes and promises to keep in touch were made by all.
A big thank you to Facilitators Chris Hughes and Mark VanderKlipp. And can’t forget – a shoutout to our amazing bus driver!
“All the participants seemed to come away with great ideas and inspiration, along with visible determination to implement some of these initiatives and Best Practices into their own communities.” Cathy Tait, Manager of Tourism Partnerships, RTO 12/Explorer’s Edge
“Each of us came back with our own message for our own community, and they’re all different, but in the end they’re all going to have the same results – they’re going to be enhancing tourism and raising the bar for Northern Ontario.” Pat Peterson, Owner/Operator of Bruce Bay Cottages & Lighthouse