Around the Nation
2:23 pm
Fri November 29, 2013

In A Small Town With Big Events, Some Are Tiring Of Tourism

Originally published on Fri November 29, 2013 10:29 pm

Many small towns across the country are using special events to attract visitors and commerce. The strategy has been a big hit in places like Aspen, Colo., and Park City, Utah, whose names have become synonymous with major festivals.

But it can take a toll. Some residents in the northern Michigan town of Traverse City complain that they're suffering from festival fatigue and would like a little less excitement.

Traverse City has been in the festival business since the 1920s, beginning with the National Cherry Festival. In 2005, Michael Moore launched a film festival, and a wide variety of events have sprung up since.

Sam Porter, who owns an event production company, has been called the party man in his hometown.

"We have about 200 events we've done in Traverse City," Porter says. "You'll see Mario Batali, you'll see microbrew festivals, you'll see the Dandy Horse [Bike] Festival, which was really just a tool to launch the first bike swap."

Lots of Porter's events have a social cause, like selling used bikes to support the area's network of bike trails.

The way he sees it, events are a great way for a region to exhibit itself.

"We always talk about the big events," he says. "That's only two, three or four different events — but really, look at all the thousands of micro-events that really make up who we are as northern Michigan."

The Price Of Tourism

But it's the big events that have some of his neighbors riled up. Earlier this fall, some residents told their commissioners they had enough.

The big events are held on Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay in a downtown gathering place called The Open Space.

"I resent that I can't go there an awful lot anymore because there's always these frickin' fences blocking my access to the Open Space," Karen Nielsen told the city commissioners.

After that meeting, the city proposed limiting the number of festivals, and the concept of "festival fatigue" took off.

Though the business community warned city leaders not to send the wrong message to visitors, Commissioner Barbara Budros was emphatic that tourists cost the city money.

"One point three million people come here, drive on our streets, use our infrastructure, leave trash, whatever," she said. "We're never going to be able to recoup the cost."

Brad Van Dommelen, who heads Traverse City's visitors bureau, looked startled when Budros said that.

He estimates that visitors spend more than $1 billion in the area every year.

"That is money that is earned elsewhere, that is being brought into our community — deposited in local businesses," he says.

Why Festivals Succeed

Lots of places are trying to attract that money. Dan McCole, an assistant professor and tourism researcher at Michigan State University, points to Caseville: It's a tiny town in Michigan's thumb that started a cheeseburger festival more than a decade ago.

The first year, he says, the town of 800 residents attracted 5,000 visitors. Last year, 300,000 cheeseburgers were sold in 10 days.

McCole says festivals like this fit with the way Americans are vacationing now: shorter trips with less advance planning.

"With festivals, you can take a last-minute trip," he says. "Festivals are run on weekends normally, or at least that's when they have their busy time, so that fits in well."

For major destinations, McCole says, events offer a new experience each time, like changing the sets in a play.

But some in Traverse City have been watching the play for decades, and they say they're not certain they want another act.

Copyright 2014 Interlochen Public Radio. To see more, visit http://interlochenpublicradio.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many small American towns use special events to attract visitors and dollars. The strategy is a hit in places like Aspen and Park City. Those names are now synonymous with major festivals. But people in one northern Michigan tourist town complain of festival fatigue. They would like a little less excitement. Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: The word fudgies has long captured the ambivalence some residents of tourist towns have for the visitors who crowd their streets and buy fudge. But that word sounds antiquated these days in towns that are becoming more adept at selling parties than fudge.

SAM PORTER: We have about 200 events we've done in Traverse City.

PAYETTE: That's Sam Porter. He's been called the party man in his hometown.

PORTER: These are the posters that actually, you know, events that could afford posters. So you'll Mario Batali. You'll see the microbrew festivals. You'll see the Dandy Horse Festival, which was really just a tool to launch the first bike swap.

PAYETTE: Lots of Porter's events have a social cause, like selling used bikes to support the area's network of bike trails. The way he sees it, events are a great way for a region to exhibit itself.

PORTER: We always talk about the big events and that's in the front. That's only two, three or four different events but really look at all the thousands of micro events that really make up who we are as northern Michigan.

PAYETTE: But it's the big events that have some of his neighbors riled up. Traverse City has been in the festival business since the late 1920s, beginning with the National Cherry Festival. In 2005, Michael Moore launched a film festival here and a wide variety of events have sprung up since. Big ones are held on Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay in a downtown spot called the Open Space. Earlier this fall, residents like Karen Nielsen told their commissioners they'd had enough.

KAREN NIELSEN: I resent that I can't go there an awful lot anymore because there's always these fences, you know, blocking my access to the Open Space.

PAYETTE: After that meeting, the city proposed limiting the number of festivals and the concept of festival fatigue went viral. Though the business community here warned city leaders not to send the wrong message to visitors, commissioner Barbara Budros was emphatic that tourists cost the city money.

BARBARA BUDROS: 1.3 million people come here, drive on our streets, use our infrastructure, you know, leave trash, whatever. We're never going to be able to recoup the cost.

PAYETTE: Brad Van Dommelen heads the Traverse City Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and looked startled when Budros said that. He estimates visitors spend more than a billion dollars in the area every year.

BRAD VAN DOMMELEN: That is money that is earned elsewhere that is being brought into our community, deposited in local businesses.

PAYETTE: Lots of places are trying to attract that money. Dan McCole studies tourism at Michigan State University and points to Caseville, a tiny town in Michigan's thumb that started a cheeseburger festival more than a decade ago.

DAN MCCOLE: The first year, it was just a two-day festival. They attracted 5,000 people. And they said, whoa, we've got to keep this going.

PAYETTE: Only 800 people live in Caseville. But last year, 300,000 cheeseburgers were sold in just 10 days. McCole says festivals like this fit with the way Americans vacation in the 21st century, shorter trips with less advance planning.

MCCOLE: With festivals, you know, you can take a last minute trip to a festival and festivals run on weekends normally. Or at least that's when they have their busy time, so that fits in well.

PAYETTE: McCole says for major destinations, events offer a new experience each time, like changing the sets in a play. But some in Traverse City who've been watching the play for decades say they're not certain they want another act. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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