By Jacob Wheeler
Ever since Wednesday, August 17, Northern Michiganders have both embraced and grappled with the news that the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and surrounding region are considered the “most beautiful place in America” — at least according to 22 percent of 100,000 voters who participated in the ABC show Good Morning America’s online competition the second week of August.
Sleeping Bear narrowly beat out Asheville, N.C., for the top spot and also bested vista heavyweights, Newport, R.I., Cape Cod, Mass., Point Reyes, Calif., Aspen, Col., Sedona, Ariz., Destin, Fla., Lanikai Beach, Hawaii, and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Those vanquished opponents are known worldwide for their beaches, their lobster, their sunsets, their skiing and their peaks. Suffice to say, we’re now on the map too.
Here’s how it happened.
In June, Good Morning America (GMA) solicited online nominations, photos and testimonials from its viewers to help pick the top 10 most beautiful places nationwide. Jim Madole of Grand Rapids, Mich., nominated Sleeping Bear with these words:
“It is peaceful and serene, a place for gazing out into the world, night or day, and realizing that the universe is truly a magical, majestic mystery, and humans are just a very small part of it all.”
“Here at Sleeping Bear,” he continued, “I sit in awe and wonder at the perfection of Mother Nature.”
In late July, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich received a call from GMA videographer and journalist Sabrina Parise in New York to inquire about stock video footage of the area. Ulrich referred her to MyNorth.com, the website of Traverse Magazine, which recently produced a DVD video titled “Journey into Sleeping Bear Dunes”.
On Thursday, July 28, Parise flew to Traverse City, rented a car and drove to Glen Arbor, where she met Traverse Magazine editor Lissa Edwards and MyNorth.com’s Rachel North for lunch at Blu, Randy Chamberlain’s gourmet restaurant at Le Bear Resort on Sleeping Bear Bay.
North recalls that Chamberlain opened the deck for them so that Parise could eat lunch while gazing out at the Manitou Passage — the stretch of water between the mainland and the Manitou Islands, where passing ships often find safe haven from Lake Michigan storms. The sky was so overcast that the islands were not visible¬ — an uncharacteristically hazy late July day. Nevertheless, Parise was smitten. This was her first trip to Glen Arbor, and all the New York journalist knew of the area was what she had seen on MyNorth.com and on the National Lakeshore’s website.
For lunch, North blogged that Chamberlain served them creamy amuse bouche with a cherry garnish, morels, local greens, walleye, crawdads, cherries, Leelanau raclette and smoked whitefish in an incredible cucumber soup, rounded out by cherry cobbler covered in Moomer’s Ice Cream.
Edwards was Parise’s first tour guide. That afternoon they visited the Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. With video camera in tow, a smitten Parise told Edwards, “Wow, it looks like we’re on top of the globe.”
North firmly believed that Edwards was the perfect ambassador for Sleeping Bear. “Lissa has a nice, three-legged approach to the dunes. She’s been reporting on them for 15 years, and she’s been a conservation supporter of the dunes for a couple decades. She understands that this place needs as much protection as it does exposure.”
Articulating to Good Morning America the fine line between recreation and preservation — that complex dance that we choreograph every tourism season — was Edwards’ job. She chronicled the history of the National Lakeshore for Parise, its cultural significance, and how the dunes came to be protected.
“When you talk about Northern Michigan, you talk about people who are absolutely committed to promoting it in a mature way,” reflected Rachel North. “We understand that we don’t want dune buggies tearing up our dunes. We don’t want condominiums everywhere. We understand conservation, and conservancies. And yet we invite thousands every year to come and visit … without giving it away.”
Early that evening, Parise checked into the historic Inn at The Homestead. The resort north of Glen Arbor had been nearly full — this being late July, and the visit being a spontaneous one — but Vice President of Sales & Marketing Jamie Jewell shuffled a few reservations to accommodate Parise and give her a view of Sleeping Bear Bay, a stone’s throw from where the Crystal River joins Lake Michigan. Jewell had arranged to meet Parise the following night for dinner, but as she was about to leave the office for the day, Jewell remembered that the Manitou Music Festival was holding a concert on top of The Homestead’s ski hill that evening. Instead, she invited her New York guest to ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain for a performance by the Celtic quartet Blackthorn and then to Nonna’s afterwards for appetizers and local wine.
“She was lovely,” recalls Jamie Jewell. “She was excited to be here … we sometimes get a bad rap (outside of the Midwest) because everyone thinks Michigan is Detroit. She had no idea there was any place like this in Michigan.”
On Friday, Park Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich — the first person to be contacted by Good Morning America — toured Parise through parts of the National Lakeshore that Lissa Edwards hadn’t already shown her. Rather than hike up the Empire Bluffs or Pyramid Point with all her camera equipment, Ulrich took her to the Scenic Drive’s Lake Michigan overlook so she could film its spectacular view. The following day, he sent her to South Manitou, and one of his rangers gave her a tour of the recently restored lighthouse. That day offered the best weather during Sabrina Parise’s three-day visit.
“When I was out with her, she said she had no idea about the beauty of this area,” said Ulrich. “This is a not uncommon reaction for people from around the country. They hear of a beautiful place in Michigan. But when people think of national parks, they think of mountains and ocean coasts.”
Ulrich has worked in other picturesque national parks, including Rocky Mountain and Crater Lake National Park. He chuckles at how friends and former colleagues from those parks react when they first encounter Sleeping Bear: “They come here to visit. Their jaws drop and they say, ‘Tom I had no idea there was anything like this here.’ Even though they’ve worked in amazing places too.”
Social media blitz
Parise returned to New York on Sunday, and a week later Good Morning America began featuring two of its 10 “most beautiful places in America” every weekday morning. Our turn came on Tuesday, Aug. 9. (along with Point Reyes, Calif.). Many of the approximately 4.5 million viewers who regularly watch GMA saw Parise’s video (and anchor Josh Elliott’s narration) of Sleeping Bear’s aerial views and pristine waters for the very first time. Some undoubtedly wrote the word “Michigan” into their future travel calendars. That day The Homestead’s Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau website received 10,000 unique visits — far above the typical peak of 1,000 per day.
Voters had until Friday at midnight to cast their ballot on GMA’s website, and if you were online at all that week, you probably received emails, Facebook updates or (Twitter) “Tweets” from MyNorth.com, The Homestead, Leelanau.com, the Glen Lake or Empire Chambers of Commerce, Cherry Republic, the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company, Crystal River Outfitters, the Glen Arbor Sun, or a host of other web-savvy outfits, encouraging you to “pull the lever” for Sleeping Bear.
On Friday afternoon, Aug. 12, GMA discreetly contacted Lissa Edwards, Rachel North and Tom Ulrich to let them know that Sleeping Bear was a top voter-getter, and that the race was tight. Good Morning America was considering sending out a larger film crew to capture more footage early the following week — before the ultimate announcement on Wednesday. To do so, they would need National Park permits through Ulrich (they ultimately decided not to send a crew). Just after 3 p.m. Edwards emailed Jamie Jewell at The Homestead to let her know that the race was close, and Sleeping Bear had a shot at victory.
Fourteen months prior, The Homestead had hired Ileana Habsburg-Snyder to be its social media-Internet marketing guru. Snyder worked from home on Fridays, and at 4 p.m. she was just about to shut down her computer when Jewell called and informed her that it was time to send the campaign into overdrive. Though Snyder had a house full of family and guests at her home near Leland, she cranked out three e-newsletters that evening: one for The Homestead resort, one for the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau and one for the Manitou Passage Golf Club, which The Homestead opened last year. Then she perused the web and posted on any Facebook wall she could think of that was related to northern Michigan. Twitter was next. Snyder “tweeted” on each of The Homestead’s accounts in order to draw the attention of as many online-savvy, and Sleeping Bear-aware users as she could. Her e-campaign reached its crescendo when food celebrity Mario Batali re-tweeted her Sleeping Bear Visitor’s Bureau message at 7:45 p.m. from his iPhone. 142,000 Mario Batali Twitter fans instantly saw him endorsing Sleeping Bear as the most beautiful place in America (his following has since surpassed 150,000).
Meanwhile, Homestead CEO Bob Kuras encouraged Jewell to reach out to the State of Michigan, the Governor and Travel Michigan. Jewell was busy communicating with everyone in her online Rolodex. “Tell them to vote on GMA’s website for Sleeping Bear.” Each individual, she hoped, would touch many others. What a great opportunity, she thought to herself, as the emails flooded her Inbox from contacts across country: vendors, work partners, Orbitz travel agents, friends and family. Her message was going viral.
At 9:30 p.m., Snyder sent Jewell a text message saying that she was signing off for the night. Meanwhile, MyNorth had emailed 27,000 people on its e-list. And Cherry Republic had blasted 50,000 customers with its “Orchard Report”, encouraging them to vote for Sleeping Bear. Northern Michigan’s social media campaign — young but potent — was firing on all cylinders.
Edwards, who had been in direct contact with Parise, stopped responding to Jewell’s emails Friday evening. “Whatever, people are busy,” she thought. Then, just before 11 p.m., Jewell received a text from Parise in New York, asking The Homestead vice president to call her. Jewell did so, and learned that Parise needed accommodations for Monday. She was returning for more footage. The race was down to Sleeping Bear and Asheville, N.C. But that was top secret.
Tom Ulrich was the one person in this inner circle who, due to the nature of his employer — the publicly funded National Park Service, wasn’t using online social media to promote or market a product. Perhaps that was why he was informed by GMA over the weekend that Sleeping Bear had won. They knew they could trust him not to post the news on Facebook or Twitter. True to form, he didn’t tell a soul, except his wife, and his boss, National Lakeshore Superintendent Dusty Shultz.
When Sabrine Parise returned on Monday, Aug. 15, to film more Sleeping Bear footage, she focused less on the National Lakeshore and more on Glen Arbor, and the town’s commerce and tourism infrastructure. She spent time on the Crystal River with Matt and Katy Wiesen of Crystal River Outfitters; she visited Cherry Republic, where owner Bob Sutherland (the “Willy Wonka” of cherries) could tell she was exhausted after two hours of filming, and gave her a cherry float; she shot video of Glen Arbor mainstays, the Good Harbor Grill, the Pine Cone, the Totem Shop, Art’s Tavern, Boone Docks, the Cottage Book Shop, Thyme Out and the Glen Arbor Bed & Breakfast.
Parise’s focus on commerce connected the dots for Ulrich. To the National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent, this wasn’t just a competition to name beautiful places — but beautiful places that also could support tourists.
“The 10 they chose to feature had some kind of support community right there, and not 50 miles away,” said Ulrich. “These destinations are surrounded by places you can stay, tourism infrastructure. Even with Grand Teton, you’ve got Jackson Hole right there. This was deliberate.”
Tuesday afternoon Jamie Jewell received a text message from her sales representative at Traverse Magazine informing her that community leaders would gather at Art’s on Wednesday morning, Aug. 17, to watch GMA’s announcement of the winner. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the tavern packed with approximately 50 excited locals — Lissa Edwards, the Wiesens, owner Tim Barr, David Marshall, the Fishers, the van Norts … but not an ABC film crew, which she had feared. Bob Sutherland, too, had been granted last-minute permission by his wife Stephanie to leave the kids and join the gang at Art’s.
Good Morning America announced Sleeping Bear as its most beautiful place in America for 2011 in what looked to be Times Square. As they had on Aug. 9, GMA’s anchors chronicled how receding glaciers shaped the Dunes; they compared the beaches and waters to the Caribbean. And they aired an interview with loyal northern Michigan promoter Mario Batali, whose Tweet may have made the difference in the social media campaign.
Back in Glen Arbor, the crowd screamed when Sleeping Bear was crowned the winner. Sutherland said that people were tearing up. The Cherry Republic president called this the most special event of many he’s experienced at Art’s over the years. “I love my company,” he reflected. “But I love my region 10 times more.”
In retrospect, the victory made sense to Sutherland. “Our national park is for most of the people who live in the Midwest,” he said. “We don’t have as much competition as, say, Aspen. No one in the next Rocky Mountain valley is gonna vote for them. And just up the coast from Cape Cod is another national park, so the vote gets split. Whereas we have one iconic spot.”
But there was no champagne or victory dance at Art’s. This was a workday — in the height of the tourism season, and many of the business-owners gathered there had to return to their desks. Within 20 minutes of the announcement, said Jewell, The Homestead received 600 magazine requests from potential visitors. And the National Lakeshore website, which typically receives 1,000 hits per day, jumped to 15,000, followed by 10,000 hits on Thursday, and 7,000 Friday.
The boost from the victory would be a sustained one, it seemed. Two weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of the major tourism season in Glen Arbor, the Dune Climb parking lot and Scenic Drive were so packed with cars that National Lakeshore employees weren’t admitting new vehicles. Ben Bricker, who lives near the Dune Climb on M-109, counted 300 more cars than he’s ever remembered in the Dune Climb parking and along the road, for half a mile in each direction.
“We had a real strong latter half of August, and one of biggest Labor Days we’ve ever had,” Tom Ulrich confirmed. “In terms of the lines at the Dune Climb and the Scenic Drive, these crowds rivaled the Fourth of July.
What was noteworthy wasn’t that the Dune Climb and the Scenic Drive were packed, he emphasized. It was that — this year at least — Labor Day had become the Fourth of July.
“What this whole GMA coverage has done is to raise Sleeping Bear Dunes in the national consciousness. The next time people plan a vacation — especially in the upper Midwest — they’ll think about the Dunes as option, whether it’s for the fall color tour or next summer as family. We’re gonna see pulse from this that spreads out over time.”
Some locals, and lovers of northern Michigan as a serene and sparsely populated wonderland, have received Good Morning America’s honor with less than open arms. They dread the crowds, hibernate until the tourists leave in the fall, and worry that hundreds of thousands of feet treading on their pristine beaches will destroy them. Understandable.
The claim is also made that tourism in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has increased, annually, since the early-1990s, and that the human footprint will continue to grow. But that claim is false, says Ulrich. In fact, the Park boasted its highest annual total of 1.35 million visitors … in 1999. Since then Americans have suffered an economic recession, gone to war, developed Facebook and built an entire creative class around social media, and Glen Arbor’s tourism infrastructure has ballooned. Still, we haven’t reached 1.35 million visitors.
“We’re behind that pace again, even with the amazing summer we’ve had,” said Ulrich. We’re on pace for the third or fourth biggest year ever in 2011 … some of that is because we had a slow April and May.” Ulrich added that the long-term effect of the GMA recognition could help 2012 make a run at 1999.
“I have to think that even with this attention, it’s not as if visitors are going to double or something crazy,” opined Ulrich. “While those of us who live here say, ‘Don’t bother going to a restaurant in July,’ our perception has little to do with the actual number of visitors. This area is geared for tourism. We have the infrastructure intended for visitors. It may strain on some summer days, but there won’t be a horrible impact — especially if spreads out a bit.”
“The trick,” said Rachel North of MyNorth.com, “will be to encourage people to come here in June and September. That’s the next step for us all.”
The day after GMA’s announcement, The Detroit News, the motor city’s second newspaper, ran a provocative article titled “Sleeping Bear Dunes ‘GMA’ honor perplexing to some”, which questioned whether Sleeping Bear was even the prettiest place in the state. “It’s nice but I can think of a bunch better,” said a woman from Mount Pleasant. The story concluded that the victory “may have had more to do with an intensive lobbying campaign in northwest Michigan.” Then on August 24, Crain’s Detroit Business ran a story titled “The sleeping giant behind Sleeping Bear: How scenery and social media created ‘The Most Beautiful Place in America’.”
The point was clear. While Glen Arbor may owe its beauty to pristine dunes and beaches, the National Lakeshore and tourism infrastructure, glaciers and Manitou islands, a mature local social media machine helped secure the victory. Each deserves credit for the GMA honor.
That sentiment worries Tom Ulrich a bit. “If people think we won because of social media presence, wouldn’t that kind of backfire? People who saw the piece might feel cheated.” Perhaps until they wade in Sleeping Bear Bay or run down the Dune Climb, that is. It’s hard to feel cheated at those majestic spots.
I asked Ulrich whether he considered this the most beautiful place in America, given that he’s worked in other picturesque national parks. The National Lakeshore official, always careful with his words, wouldn’t commit to a simple answer.
“This is definitely one of the most beautiful places in America. But it’s a very personal thing. I’m the kind of person who can’t name you just one: there are so many different places. It’s the same with my favorite band. It all depends on my mood at the time.”
Mayberry no more
There’s no denying northern Michigan’s social media prowess and ability to promote this region we love. Ileana Habsburg-Snyder’s role at The Homestead is a testament to that. So is Mario Batali’s Twitter account, MyNorth.com’s website, and Cherry Republic’s weekly e-newsletter.
“We have a distance relationship with most of our customers,” said Bob Sutherland. “We don’t see them every day like businesses in some regions do. They come and see us, and then go away for nine months. So we’ve developed an Internet-based relationship.”
Sutherland sends his weekly “Orchard Report” to some 50,000 recipients. It typically includes details on certain Cherry Republic products, “news from the north,” a trivia question of the week, and a personalized paragraph at the bottom written by Bob, in which he talks about his wife, children, and their adventures of the previous week.
“After I send out the Orchard Report, I can’t go through town without people asking about my kids,” said Sutherland. “Former U.S. Senator Don Riegle stopped me on the side of the road recently and talked for 15 minutes about the Orchard Report and how that’s his tie back to northern Michigan.”
While the Orchard Report, Facebook and Twitter are all relatively new on the scene, the presence in northern Michigan of a population on the cutting edge is not new. Rachel North recalls seeing a map four or five years ago in USA Today that showed the infiltration of technology and where the Internet was taking hold the most. Colored in red she saw a little pinky finger on the map that represented the Leelanau-Grand Traverse region and ran up toward Petoskey.
“I think frankly that the people who live and work here are highly technically oriented — they are a very creative class. Many here run a bed & breakfast and used to work in the automotive industry downstate and understand sophisticated programs and policies. They leave that work behind but they don’t leave knowledge behind.”
Sutherland concurs. “So many of the retirees up here have been very successful, and now they are running chambers of commerce and things. We’re talking about a bunch of ex-CEOs.”
North vividly recalls the day that Traverse Magazine made the jump into the digital age. Three years ago publisher Deborah Wyatt Fellows called a management meeting and told her staff, “We’re no longer a magazine company. We’re now a media company. That means video, and online …” She saw the direction things were heading.
Perhaps it was our social media infrastructure that surprised folks in Detroit and New York even more than our stunning vistas did. For while this may be the rural Midwest, where a friendly, folksy attitude prevails, this is not Mayberry (the fictional town in North Carolina, which was the setting for the Andy Griffith Show).
“I think (New Yorkers) would be surprised,” said North. “They talk about how friendly we are, and use the expression ‘Mayberry’. But if you were in Mayberry, you couldn’t go to the Interlochen Arts Academy and hear world-class music. You couldn’t dine at Blu or La Becasse, Red Ginger or Stellas in Traverse City. New Yorkers have trouble coming up with a moniker that describes this friendly, yet culturally sophisticated northern Michigan.”
And now that Sleeping Bear is considered the most beautiful place in America by a major Manhattan-based media network, more and more people are sure to discover both our setting and our sophistication.
On Labor Day weekend, Cherry Republic’s front patio on Lake Street was so busy that Bob Sutherland began walking through the crowd asking visitors how they had heard of his company. About every fifteenth person, he estimated, learned about Cherry Republic through Good Morning America. He met a tourist who had left the East Coast and was en route to Portland, Oregon, when they saw GMA on television and decided to take a detour to Sleeping Bear. Cherry Republic also received a call from a woman in San Diego who had seen the show and wanted to visit this fall. Where could she stay, she asked?
At The Homestead, Bob Kuras ran into a couple at Nonna’s who were from Toronto and had time for one more trip before summer ended. Upon seeing GMA, they chose Glen Arbor. This is shaping up to be the resort’s biggest September ever, confirmed Jamie Jewell.
But nothing quite topped the story of Shelly and Jeff Plumb, a couple from Butler, Missouri, whose wedding plans on Cape Cod were dashed by Hurricane Irene and its torrential downpour all over New England in late August. Friends back in Missouri who had watched GMA told them about Sleeping Bear, and they decided to “honeymoon” here. While shopping in Glen Arbor, Shelly and Jeff’s story reached Black Swan owner Christy Marshall — a legal wedding officiant. Homestead resident Helen Muzzin offered the beach outside her South Beach condominium for the setting, and Christy’s husband and County Commissioner David Marshall served as the official witness. An impromptu Glen Arbor wedding, made possible by Sleeping Bear’s social media machine.
Northern Michigan wasn’t the only Good Morning America finalist to use a social media campaign to get out its vote, of course. In early September I called the Convention and Visitors Bureau in GMA runner-up Asheville, North Carolina, to inquire about that area’s social media infrastructure, and learned about ExploreAsheville.com and the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Mountain Xpress’ Facebook pages. But when I mentioned that I publish a magazine in Glen Arbor, Michigan, (and without rubbing in the victory) communications director Dodie Stevens became excited at the other end of the line, and said that colleagues of hers in the office had been to the Sleeping Bear Dunes and told her about the cherries.
“I love cherries,” Stevens said. “I want to come visit.”
(Speaking of social media, local videographer extraordinaire Justin Warnes recorded the crowd that walked the Narrows Bridge on Labor Day as saying, “Good morning America from the Sleeping Bear Dunes!” This video has been viewed nearly 2,500 times online. Watch it below.)
This GlenArbor.com online story was brought to you by Pegtown Station. In the heart of Maple City, Pegtown Station boasts among the best homemade pizza, subs and salads in northern Michigan, according to the Northern Express’ “Readers Choice Awards”.