Northern Michigan has rapidly changed over the last several years, seeing growth not only in visitors, but also in new businesses like wineries, breweries, and foodie restaurants.
Many of those visitors are now heading north during the fall. Business as usual is clearly changing in not only Traverse City, but all of northern Michigan.
Nearly a decade ago, Labor Day was essentially the end of the tourism season in northern Michigan. Students would head back to school, seasonal workers would depart, and many businesses would shut down for the long winter ahead.
Fast forward to 2015, and you’ll see businesses staying open later, or year-round, to accommodate an influx of autumn visitors. Tourism officials say fall has quickly become northern Michigan’s second busiest season.
Laura Oblinger is the Executive Director of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. She says the word is out that Traverse city is a “gem.”
Oblinger also says visitors are attracted to northern Michigan’s natural displays during the fall.
“The fall color tour, the magnificent experience of just witnessing nature’s beauty. So that gets them here and then they are stumbling on the wineries and the breweries, and the restaurants” says Oblinger.
Oblinger says wineries especially have seen exponential growth over the past few years.
“In 2006, Michigan had 47 wineries. Today Michigan is home to 120 plus wineries, and more than half of those are right here in northern Michigan. That number wouldn’t have more than doubled if not for a demand, if not for a market” says Oblinger.
The oldest winery in Traverse City is Chateau Grand Traverse. It opened it’s doors back in the 1970s, when most of Michigan’s wineries were in the southern part of the state.
Eddie O’Keefe is the President of the winery. Although the winery sees steady business all year, fall may be its best season.
“It’s been my experience that the fall season, is a season in it’s own rite. But it is such a busy concentrated time. During the fall color tour, it hits on a Saturday or Sunday with a vengeance and then the rest of the week is quiet” says O’Keefe.
However, when I recently visited Chateau Grand Traverse on a Monday, business was booming.
O’Keefe says fall visitors get a completely different experience at his establishment than those who visit at other times during the year.
“Visiting and going on a winery tour, is probably the best time of the year because you actually get to see what’s going on. Grapes are being harvested, production is going on, you really get a sense of wine-making in action” says O’Keefe.
As a native of the area, O’Keefe has no problem understanding why the region is gaining popularity among fall visitors.
“M-22 and some of the other roads up are area rated some of the best color tour driving areas of the whole country. You know, you combine that with high quality food, and brew pubs, and wineries and you add it all up and it’s a season in it’s own right that people go out of their way to come here to see” says O’Keefe.
The growth of the autumn tourism season is also affecting northern Michigan’s “foodie” culture, including specialty restaurants and retailers.
Fustini’s Oil and Vinegars is one of them. Fustini’s has been a fixture in Traverse City since 2007.
Maxine Ferris, the assistant manager at Fustini’s, says fall business is forever growing.
She says her shop often has seasonal products in stock, which draws in the customers.
“I think we follow the seasonal food and products and everything like that. Certain people come up here for the fall colors, but they also come here because they don’t want to come up here during the heat, it’s a little quieter but there’s still a lot going on and the weather is still beautiful” says Ferris.
Ferris says in her seven years at Fustini’s, she has seen a steady increase in the number of people who visit during the fall season.
Those new, later visitors have lead many businesses to expand their operations, including both Fustini’s and Chateau Grand Traverse. That’s good for workers and good for the economy, in what can sometimes be a sleepy part of the state after Labor Day.