Traverse City Business News | Sports: The Final Frontier for Northern Michigan Tourism?

Sports: The Final Frontier for Northern Michigan Tourism?

Are sports the great untapped frontier for the Northern Michigan tourism economy? Traverse City Tourism and Grand Traverse Resort and Spa believe the answer is yes, and are taking important steps to leverage sporting events as key drivers for future traffic and revenue.

There are currently eight hotels under construction or under development in the Traverse City area. If all of those projects are built as planned, they will add nearly 800 hotel rooms to the area’s hotel pool, an increase of approximately 20% over the approximately 4,000 hotel rooms that currently exist in the area. For Traverse City Tourism (TCT), that increase represents both a great opportunity and a small burden.

TCT, which earns an assessment tax per room from each hotel operating within its jurisdiction, is responsible for marketing the area as a destination and helping hotels fill those rooms year-round. Speaking last fall to TCBN’s sister publication The Ticker, TCT President and CEO Trevor Tkach expressed both excitement and apprehension about the area’s growing hotel scene.


“It’s always exciting for us to see fresh, new products on the market,” Tkach said. “And there is definitely demand at certain times of the year. But we also know that we have to work hard to keep all of our transitional options viable throughout the year. That is a challenge, and as we get more of these units on the market, it will become more of a challenge.”

According to Tkach, Traverse City has more than enough tourist demand in the summer months to keep all the hotels in the area busy.

“Where I think we need to be mindful is with the other three seasons,” he said. “And that’s what TCT is here to help do. Keeping the travel economy strong year-round, keeping small businesses viable, and keeping workers fully employed and earning better wages – those are our goals.”

Needless to say, in the off-season, Traverse City is missing perhaps the biggest draw of summer, which is glorious weather ideal for swimming, boating, sunbathing, al fresco dining, and other activities.

But northern Michigan is also missing something else in the cooler months that summer has in spades: a jam-packed calendar of events. From festivals to races, concerts and more, the months between May and September are packed with things to do for locals and visitors alike. October to April, on the other hand? Those months are (much) more barren on the events front. TCT’s biggest plan to fill 800 new hotel rooms targets that gap squarely.


In November, TCT announced that it had hired Mickey Graham as its first Director of Sports and Events. Graham comes to the role after four years as general manager of the Traverse City Pit Spitters, where he also oversaw a variety of non-baseball events hosted at Turtle Creek Stadium.

Graham said he will look to use both his sports background and experience in concerts, shows, festivals and other live giveaways as he works to attract new events to the Traverse City region.

In particular, Graham is hopeful that he can bring events to the area that not only draw tourists and fill hotel rooms, but also attract locals. In the fall of 2021, Graham helped run what he calls “the two biggest events in Turtle Creek Stadium history”: the first, a concert by country band Old Dominion, the second, a tour stop by the team. of action sports Nitro Circus.

Both events drew loads of tickets and drew attendees from all over Northern Michigan…and beyond.

“I think we showed with those events at Turtle Creek Stadium that there’s a market for that kind of thing here,” Graham said of the flashy live events.

However, if there’s going to be a bread and butter for Graham’s event focus, it’s likely to be athletics.

Local tourism professionals have already been working in recent years to attract more sports tournaments to the region. Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, for example, has long hosted tennis tournaments at its gym and for many years served as the home of the Michigan Special Olympics.

Last year, the Resort took its athletic focus a step further by purchasing portable sports floors that allow the property to convert its tennis courts into temporary basketball courts. The Resort debuted the new feature in February 2022 for an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament that drew an attendance of nearly 800 people across 34 youth basketball teams.

According to Caroline Rizzo, the Resort’s Communications Manager, the sports floor has generated a strong return on investment within the first year of its implementation. Perhaps most notably, the Resort signed a partnership with FAAST Sports, a Southeast Michigan-based organization that plans sports tournaments, leagues, and camps throughout the state, and has half a dozen tournaments scheduled under that brand throughout the state. of 2023.

Also on the docket: a three-day Detroit Pistons Academy youth basketball camp the Resort hosted in the summer of 2022. That event, Rizzo said, “sold out in just a few days” and drew boys and girls from all over the world. Michigan; the Resort looks forward to working with the Pistons on similar camps in the future.

“In every tournament we host, we’ve seen an increase in attendee room nights,” Rizzo said. “More and more families have realized that you can stay here and play here. You never have to leave the property.”

In addition to confirmed FAAST commitments, possible future partnerships with the Pistons, and other basketball events, Rizzo added that the Resort also has many other athletic tournaments scheduled for 2023, including volleyball and wrestling.

When the Resort first announced the sports flooring investment last year, the hotel shared three main goals for the new offering: that it would expand the property’s demographic reach, that it would boost off-season business, and that it would generate more than 1,000 room nights per year.

So far, Rizzo said, investment is exceeding expectations. The Detroit Pistons camp, for example, was the first program of its kind that the Pistons organization had organized in northern Michigan. Meanwhile, tournament traffic is doing its job injecting extra activity into the fall and winter months. While those events vary in size, Rizzo told TCBN that even the smallest tournaments tend to generate a fair amount of business during slower months like November or March.

“We’ve had over 30 teams in some tournaments,” Rizzo said. “Those teams have come from Northern Michigan, Southeast and Southwest Detroit, Central Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Each team has 8 to 12 players, plus coaches and player families. So there are times when we have more than 550 people here for tournaments.”

The Resort’s success in transforming itself into a more sporting venue, Tkach said, is proof that athletics is a largely untapped area of ​​potential for local tourism. And it’s not just out-of-town events and organizations clamoring for more indoor sports infrastructure in northern Michigan.

“We’ve seen significant interest from our own community in having more sporting events and more recreational facilities available year-round,” Tkach noted. “I’m forecasting that we’ll see that start come to fruition in the next five years. There’s enough interest and enough demand, and now that we’re seeing these new venues on the market, there’s definitely a case to start generating more resources to help bring sports tournaments here, and then use those events to fill the venues and keep businesses busy. all year. round.”

Investments are already underway for indoor sports facilities in northern Michigan. The new Traverse City Curling Club facility coming online at the Cherryland Center is one example. The promise of new indoor pickleball courts at a planned development in Acme Township, on the former Kmart/Tom’s Food Markets property, is another.

The elephant in the room on that front is the possibility of a dedicated indoor sports complex in Traverse City. That project has been a popular topic of discussion in the region for years, with TCT a leading proponent. In 2018, TCT even conducted a feasibility study to dig deeper into the idea.

So far, no firm vision for the project, let alone the complex itself, has materialized.

According to Graham, talks about the sports complex are still ongoing, even if there’s no concrete update on what’s to come next.

“There is a group that has been meeting about (the indoor sports complex project), and I know that group has had some meetings recently, but I don’t think there are any major updates,” Graham said. “I know that it is a project that this group really sees as an important piece for the region, and they have been working hard to see how they can carry it out.”