Economic recession? Not necessarily

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Bed&Breakfast1Thanks to Pure Michigan, Bed & Breakfast and others report healthy summers

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Chat with guests at the Glen Arbor Bed & Breakfast on a given weekend, and you’ll take a virtual cross-country tour, and perhaps even a global one. Nearly half of those staying at the popular B&B in the heart of Glen Arbor are from out of state, and the guest book also boasts messages of “Thanks for a great vacation!” from Brits, Germans, Chinese, Venezuelans, Belgians, French, Scots, Israelis, Ghanaians, to name a few.

On account of the global economic recession, and stormy waters for Michigan in particular, owners Patricia and Larry Widmayer had forecasted a 20-percent drop in the number of guests this year. But that didn’t happen. Their numbers, and profits, have been as steady as a trusty skipper at sea. In fact, their tally has increased.

The National Park, the beaches, the inland lakes, the rolling hills and the wineries have a lot to do with that, of course, but the Widmayers also cite the state-funded Pure Michigan advertising campaign as keeping the local tourism industry afloat.

PureMichigan“Many people have commented to us that they’ve seen the Pure Michigan campaign. It makes you want to come here,” said Patricia, who spends most of the year in Evanston, Ill. and sees the ad campaign on Illinois television. “The ads have a great look and feel, whether you want to go out on the golf course or to the beach,” Larry chimed in.

Actor and comedian, and a summer resident of nearby Northport, Tim Allen provides the voiceover, with poetic and compelling messages like this one: “Fall colors begin with a slow dance of turning leaves, and crescendo in a trillion trees aflame. Experience the entire state of Michigan in its annual blaze of glory. Find out what Pure Michigan fall colors feel like. Your trip begins at”

Pure Michigan was launched in 2006, and Governor Jennifer Granholm approved $45 million in additional funding in 2008 — an unprecedented tourism budget for the state, which allowed the campaign to be broadcast on a national level beginning this March.

Patricia and Larry Widmayer certainly hope those funds continue to be allocated and that Pure Michigan continues to bring tourists up north.

Stories over breakfast

The Glen Arbor Bed & Breakfast was built in the 1870s, served as a single-family home and a “kum-an-dyne” restaurant during the 1930s and 40s. The old Victorian house has since added a new porch, and the Widmayers brought a crew of workers from Evanston to renovate the house and give it a French countryside aura after buying it from Mike and Becky Sutherland in March of 2001. The B&B currently boasts six rooms and suites, two cottages out back, a cozy living room and large fireplace (from where guests can look out and see the heart of Glen Arbor at the corner of M-22 and M-109).

Bed&Breakfast2When I joined the Widmayers for a communal breakfast on a Sunday morning in early September, there were guests around the table from Oakland, Calif., Denver, Col., Milwaukee, Wis., and all over southern Michigan. Innkeepers Brian and Jody treated us to a scrumptious, and not atypical, meal of Granny Smith apples with whip cream, hashbrown casserole, homestyle biscuits, Patricia’s own honey-vanilla granola (she brings a bag of it to her daughter-in-law whenever they visit North Carolina: view the recipe on the B&B’s website) and topped off with coffee from the Leelanau Coffee Roasters.

The Widmayers had plenty of favorite yarns about guests and how they fond their ways to Glen Arbor. There was the 10-year-old grandson of a schoolteacher from Patricia’s youth who, when asked of his favorite vacation destination, chose Glen Arbor over Disneyworld and California because he loved going fishing up north with his grandfather. Last fall the B&B hosted a United States Postal Service team, which was in town to unveil the Sleeping Bear Dunes stamp. The federal employees all had interesting tales about how they found their ways to Washington and which politicians they had befriended, among them Sens., and Vietnam war heroes, John Kerry and Max Cleland. There was also a woman last year who dressed up in a clown outfit and surprised her sister on her birthday.

And one morning innkeeper Brian was chatting with a couple guests from his native Wauwatosa, a neighborhood in Milwaukee across the lake, when he discovered that they lived in the exact house where he had grown up!

State of the economy around town

Here’s what local retail businesses and restaurants had to say about how they fared this summer, despite the global economic recession, despite the closing of the Narrows Bridge, and despite, or on account of, the lousy weather. (We didn’t quote any real estate or building companies: obviously, their business has suffered more.):

• Holly Reay, Trattoria Funistrada: “We were up. Adding tables in the bar did increase our capacity and therefore our sales, but it appears that we were up anyway. We noticed a different trend in spending, and our fine wine sales were down just a little, but otherwise a successful summer.”

• Bonnie Nescot, Art’s Tavern: “Arts’ summer was up. We attribute it to the cooler weather, keeping people off the beach and water. (Husband) Tim Barr’s logic is that while 10 percent of U.S. citizens might be unemployed, 90 percent still are, and a lot of them chose to come to our area.”

• Marion DeVinney, Synchronicity Gallery: “Synchronicity has been up this summer. Our sales are about 17 percent above last year’s figures. Last year, sales started dropping in August when people were very uneasy about what was happening to the economy. They are more settled this year, so we hope that sales will continue to be strong through the end of October.”

• Tom Ingold, Devette & Ford Insurance: “We have seen steady growth in the insurance business, through referrals and existing customers that want to combine everything with a local agency. We have seen a trend of customers wanting to work with a smaller agency and know who they are talking to, not the larger agencies where the person who services the policy is not the same as the one who sold it.”

• Margaret Hodge, Anchor Hardware: “I am very pleased. My business is steadily growing, year round.”

• Randy Chamberlain, blu restaurant: “I was extremely cautious with the state of the economy, the Detroit auto mess, and for business in the ‘luxury’ market. I was convinced that we’d have to work harder for less. But we have exceeded my forecast every single week: it’s a mystery as to why. July and August were both over 50 percent above last year, and I see our fall reservations following suit.”

• Mike Sutherland, The River at Crystal Bend: “We were up by 50 percent. I attribute this to adding the eco tours and the kayak livery business, but also the Pure Michigan campaign. With National Park attendance up 10 percent, that’s over 100,000 more people in and around Glen Arbor. If we get even 1 percent of those, it makes a huge difference on our bottom line. Also, I think the bad weather helped us, as people were looking for things to do instead of beaching it.”

• Sue Nichols, Riverfront Pizza & Deli: “Thankfully we were busier this summer than last year. We are lucky to be in an area fueled by tourism, where people on vacation like to eat out. I know when I go on vacation that cooking is not something I look forward to. We also have a pretty loyal local base.”

• Matt Wiesen, Crystal River Outfitters: “With the current weather it appears Mother Nature may be confused on her seasons. The weather was exceptionally challenging this year due to the rain and overcast skies, but business was still quite good. Midwesterners are resilient people and a little cool weather rarely keeps them inside for very long. Crystal River Outfitters has been on the river for 15 years now and we have developed a loyal following, for whom canoeing and kayaking the Crystal River is a summer tradition. When it was sunny we were very busy, hitting our numbers from previous years and in some cases even beating them.”

• Cammie Buehler, Epicure Catering (nearby Omena): “We are up significantly from last year (the worst in our seven-year history) but still down from our high mark of two years ago.”

• Cherrie Stege, Forest Gallery and Lake Street Studios: “We enjoyed a wonderful season. Last year was our best ever, and this year has almost matched that. Like everyone else, Beth (Bricker) and I were crossing our fingers and hoping for at least a good ‘no bridge’ and ‘low economy’ season when we opened our doors in the spring. As it turned out, those two influences weren’t the driving factors. The cool weather kept people off the beaches and in our galleries, much to our delight.”

• David Marshall, Glen Lake Chamber of Commerce President: “My impressions (from a recent Chamber meeting) are that, for most of us, business was either down some or about the same. I’ve heard everything from ‘things have been off 20 percent’ to ‘we are even with previous years.’ Now, if you think about it, ‘being even with previous years’ is darn good in this kind of economy. It’s almost like being up. Other than the businesses south of Glen Arbor on M-22, or north of Empire beyond the M-109 cutoff, I don’t think people were nearly as impacted by the bridge closing as they were by the economy, in general. I’ve heard many merchants say that they had as many people as in previous years, but people were scaling back their buying.”