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.
“1.3 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 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.