Sometime this month, the 1,364,835th visitor to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 2012 will arrive at the Dune Climb, hike to Pyramid Point, or perhaps bike the Heritage Trail and enjoy its stunning autumnal beauty. In doing so, that visitor will officially make this the busiest year ever for the Glen Arbor region, the most profitable for local businesses, and perhaps the most hectic one too.
At 4 p.m. on Labor Day Monday, Glen Arbor Bed & Breakfast owner Patricia Widmayer noticed, “it was as if someone had suddenly turned the radio off.” It was quiet. All the tourists had packed their cars and headed south, ceding these small towns to their year-round caretakers once again. As they do every year, business owners breathed a sigh of relief, but this time, their collective exhale may have been audible clear to the Manitou Islands.
Profits and visitor numbers surged. Traffic at the Bed & Breakfast grew 15 percent this spring and summer compared to 2011, and Widmayer welcomed 43 percent more customers last fall (after Good Morning America named us America’s “most beautiful place” in August) compared to the same period in 2010. At LVR Realty, rentals were up 18 percent over 2011, and more customers were renting homes during the quieter months of June and October. The revenue increase at Anderson’s Market wasn’t the average year-to-year bump, Brad Anderson determined, but a leap that he hadn’t seen since expanding the store in 1998. But around the corner at the Black Swan, owner Christy Marshall’s profits were actually flat because of the giant recreational vehicles, boats and busses parked on M-22 that blocked the Village Sampler Plaza and hurt drive-by traffic.
Meanwhile, in Empire, Miser’s Hoard’s numbers were up 10 percent, and Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate’s sales surged by a whopping 40 percent over last year. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak got so busy that owner Beryl Skrocki worried whether they were “able to provide customers with the service we pride ourselves in. Our shop has always been about building friendships and spreading community our fun, laid-back lifestyle.”
Use of the village’s free wireless Internet access exploded, particularly at the Glen Lake Library, where librarian David Diller reported that “visitors seemed oblivious of other library patrons’ rights or needs: children perusing picture books had to share space at the kids’ table with moms checking their Facebook page; older patrons wanting to read the newspaper were displaced by 20-somethings updating their iPhone playlists, and businessmen on cell phones carried on animated conversations while checking their email at our front desk.” What he witnessed made Diller question whether the concept of a vacation had changed in an increasingly wireless world.
Art’s Tavern was so busy in early July that it ran out of Bell’s Oberon — its most popular summer beer — and ice disappeared from dispensers all over town with distributors unable to deliver more (Some joked that perhaps Glen Arbor ought to turn back the clock by a century and convert the Arbor Light building into the Warnes’ general store once again, where customers could buy 16-16-foot blocks of ice that had been dragged off Lake Michigan and stored in salt). Luckily, Anderson’s had installed a new Point of Sale system this summer, which herded 20 percent more customers through the checkout line.
As of Sept. 1, visitors to the National Lakeshore were up 21.7 percent over the same eight-month period in 2011, putting the Park just 66,764 visitors shy of the annual record, which was set in 1999. “It’s extremely likely we’ll exceed our record by the end of September,” deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Tom Ulrich told the Leelanau Enterprise. “Even if we were to have our lowest September attendance ever (70,000 in 2003), we’d still have a new record.”
But record profits weren’t the only change in the north country. Some business owners noticed distinct types of tourists to which they were not accustomed, and not always attracted — visitors who were driven to come here perhaps by the successful Pure Michigan campaign, or more likely by the Good Morning America honor, and the northern Michigan social media campaign that secured that victory.
“My concern is that at least some of them were expecting something different from Glen Arbor than what we actually offer,” said Widmayer. “Some people who came probably got a signal from Good Morning America that this place was really beautiful but they didn’t take their expectations into account. We describe Glen Arbor as a flip-flop-wearing, beach town, whereas they were looking for something more upscale, where they only have to wander short distances.”
On July 31, Widmayer posted a letter on the travel website TripAdvisor.com in response to a couple negative posts about the Bed & Breakfast, and Glen Arbor in general, which she felt reflected false expectations. She concluded her letter with these words: “This is a very fun town where the sugar sand beach is just 10 houses down the lane from our porch. … But we are not for those who really want constant high-end service, a super quiet space, and ultimate shopping. We love having cable TV, but we are in the middle of a National Park and the repair guy only comes this way once a week. … We would love to have you join us in Paradise, but know what we are and what we are not. What we lack in big city ambiance we gain in happy couples and kids and families all over town, the arts and the great outdoors to surround you, warm hospitality to welcome you, and a special room to stay for a night or a week. Come join us.”
Widmayer was not the only business owner to witness false expectations. In July, Trattoria Funistrada in Burdickville experienced a high number of customers who made table reservations and never showed, sometimes costing the classy Italian restaurant 20 percent of its business. “I think some of that lends itself to tourists in the area who just didn’t have regard for the personal feel,” said owner Holly Reay. Meanwhile, those first-time visitors monopolized spaces often used by Leelanau County’s regular summer visitors. “Those who couldn’t get here in July came in August instead,” added Reay, “so our August made up for our July.”
In downtown Glen Arbor, renowned painter Greg Sobran witnessed larger crowds, but he didn’t feel that his high-end art spoke to what he called “the stampede of the network-television-watching demographic.” A New Jersey man actually asked Sobran where the strip clubs were, adding “like, where do you have fun around here?”
“The little town we love can easily turn into a sleazy tourist trap if business development is based purely on raising numbers of tank- and muffin-topped pit bull walkers,” Sobran worried aloud.
Of course, such follies come with the territory of doing business in an instant-gratification, tourism economy. Every summer, locals confront odd questions and strange requests from those they’re “paid to serve”. This year, though, the requests were a little stranger.
LVR Realty owner Ranae Ihme light-heartedly recalls several Homestead condominium renters calling their 24-hour emergency for help finding the thermostats to control the air-conditioning — even though all of LVR’s confirmation slips explain that air-conditioning is not provided in the units. The renters were instead encouraged to open windows to let air circulate. Some admitted that they hadn’t considered that.
One renter hiked to the top of the Dune Climb and used his cell phone to call LVR’s office and ask whether he should turn left or right. Another was so excited about renting a boat on Big Glen Lake that they prepared glass bottles so they could “collect the different colors of water: in the Glen Lake. Best of all, one renter called LVR’s office one morning to ask if “we could turn the nature CD down at night so they could sleep better.”
Miscellaneous items that renters left at their units and asked LVR to return to them included a back brace, retainers, fishing poles, check books, undergarments movies, toothbrushes, candles and aromatherapy oils. While checking out one renter was asked by LVR staff if they had enjoyed their vacation. The renter responded that his only issue was three crying kids in the car who didn’t want to leave.
“We handed him three suckers and a confirmation for his next reservation,” smiled Ihme.