Northern Michigan greets busy Memorial Day weekend with staff shortages

Restaurants, wineries and hotels in northern Michigan are bracing for a deluge of…

Northern Michigan greets busy Memorial Day weekend with staff shortages 1
Northern Michigan greets busy Memorial Day weekend with staff shortages 2
Northern Michigan greets busy Memorial Day weekend with staff shortages 3

Restaurants, wineries and hotels in northern Michigan are bracing for a deluge of tourists this Memorial Day weekend as vaccinations and pent-up demand fuel confidence in travel that’s likely to pick up even more this summer, industry experts say.

But many businesses are experiencing staffing shortages, prompting them to cut hours, days or close off sections of restaurants or rooms that would normally be open to the public during a busy weekend.

Roughly 1 million people are expected to travel in the Mitten State this coming Memorial Day weekend, according to the American Automobile Association Michigan. That’s a 57% increase from last year, when close to 700,000 people still drove out of town for the holiday despite an ongoing pandemic and business restrictions meant to curtail infections.

In 2019, before the global spread of COVID-19, an estimated 1.2 million people trekked 50 miles or more for the holiday weekend in Michigan. AAA projects close to that number this coming weekend.

By all accounts, business owners say they’re struggling just to keep up with customers.

Consumer confidence reports and other industry analyses — as well as anecdotal reports of busy restaurants, breweries and beach fronts in the past two weeks — all indicate a crowded holiday weekend and a busier summer as Michigan gears up to ease remaining pandemic restrictions June 1.

Even higher $3-a-gallon gas prices aren’t leading to fear of fewer tourists.

“We’re dealing with a year’s worth of pent-up demand, and it’s really gonna be unleashed this summer,” said Adrienne Woodland, a spokeswoman for AAA Michigan.

Among the places experiencing heightened interest are popular state parks, national parks, campgrounds and beach fronts.

The pandemic has fueled renewed interest in hiking, camping, fishing and other forms of outdoor leisure, said Ron Olson, parks and recreation chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the interest is still growing.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park already was experiencing an increase in visits through April, and this weekend promises to be even busier than usual, an official said.

“We anticipate a busy weekend. It’s busy already right now in the visitors center,” said Merrith Baughman, the park’s director of interpretation and visitor services. “The great thing about Sleeping Bear Dunes is you can always find your own space.”

Mackinac Island also is anticipating a busy weekend. Potentially upwards of 12,000-14,000 people are expected to take a ferry to Mackinac Island this weekend, said Chris Shepler, who manages Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry.

“The fear has subsided because of the vaccination,” Shepler said. “I think people are moving because they do feel safer than they did last year perhaps.”

Traditionally, Memorial Day weekend is a test for summer tourism appetite, said Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism. If the past two busy weeks in Traverse City were any indication, the problem for restaurant and hospitality business owners isn’t demand, but too few workers, he said.

Staffing shortages hit businesses

For example, northern Michigan restaurants like the Boathouse in Traverse City, the Alpine Tavern & Eatery in Gaylord and Moose and Stella’s Cafe in Kalkaska will be open one fewer day a week starting next week, said Gary Kosch, a landlord and business partner for the establishments and at four others in northern Michigan.

“I have raised salaries. I’ve advertised for good $55,000-$65,000 jobs that nobody’s applying for,” Kosch said. “I’m just working hard to retain the staff I have. If you called every restaurant, every hospitality (business) in northern Michigan and asked if they needed help — the answer would be a desperate yes.”

The issue isn’t unique to restaurants, breweries and bars

Northern Michigan hotels such as the Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor also are struggling to find enough staff despite operating at reduced capacity with current pandemic restrictions, said Travel Michigan Vice President David Lorenz.

That’s in part fueled by travel restrictions from other countries, Lorenz said. Northern Michigan hotels and resorts have for years relied on foreign seasonal workers who come for the summer through federal visa programs. In April, the Biden administration last week finalized a temporary rule to boost from 66,000 to 88,000 nationwide the number of seasonal, non-agricultural work visas to deal with staffing demand through the end of September.

Many U.S. citizens aren’t interested in the job insecurity that comes with temporary employment, Lorenz said.

“Our challenge is, in many places of the state, we’re having trouble getting enough employees so that we can fully open,” he said. 

Doug Dean, executive vice president for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, said although businesses are expecting tourists to flood the island, the hotel is struggling to find enough workers.

“I think it means some of us are working longer days than we would in other circumstances, but we’re so excited to have the return of the business that we’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Dean said.

Black Star Farms, a 160-acre winery estate outside of Traverse City in Suttons Bay, is feeling the same staffing shortage, managing owner Sherri Campbell Fenton said. The winery is closing a cafe that’s usually open to customers for Memorial Day weekend, she said.

A number of staff members at the winery stepped back because they were afraid of the health risks associated with catering events during a pandemic, Campbell Felton said. 

The small estate has 10 rooms available to the public and is a popular location for corporate dinners and weddings. Reservations already are mostly booked from May to October.

“We are already experiencing our highest level of spring occupancy ever,” Campbell Fenton said. “Once the restrictions on the restaurants were lifted in February, the phone started ringing, and we started filling up.”

Vaccine generates hope

Travel Michigan’s Lorenz and others say they hope vaccines will do their part in fueling a renewed willingness to return to work.

About 45.7% of Michigan’s 8.6 million adults 16 years and older are fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Service’s website.

The northwest lower peninsula, which is heavily reliant on tourists to fuel its economy, has higher rates of vaccination than many other counties in the state. Leading the pack is Leelanau County with 66.4% of the population having been completed vaccinated against COVID-19, state health department data show. In Charlevoix County, the rate is 54.8%; in Benzie County, 56.1%; and Grand Traverse County, 58.2%.

Farther south along west Michigan’s shoreline, Manistee and Mason counties have more than 51% of their residents fully vaccinated.

Parks see resurgence

At Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire, Baughman said she expects around 500 visitors on Memorial Day — but perhaps more based on the uptick in interest this year — compared with the 200 to 300 people who visit the national park on a typical May day.

The park’s visitation has grown 35% from the same January-April period last year, she said. Despite the pandemic, the park has had more visitors so far this year than in 2018 or 2019 over the same months — nearly 127,000, she said.

Both campgrounds on the mainland are fully booked with holiday reservations, Baughman said.

The DNR’s Olson said he expects a busy weekend in popular parks, campgrounds and beach fronts. That includes places like Holland State Park, Warren Dunes, Grand Haven, Ludington and parks in the Traverse City area.

Camping and lodging reservations this year so far have soared 40% from 2020 and are up about 2% from pre-pandemic levels in 2018 and 2019, according to the DNR. 

Last year, the pandemic fed such a surge in outdoor escapes the Michigan DNR closed the Tippy Dam Recreation Area in Manistee County. People were “fishing shoulder to shoulder,” ignoring social distancing rules, Olson said. The DNR closed a parking lot at a popular Grand Haven beachfront last year for the same reason.

Although social distancing rules and limits on outdoor gatherings still are in place until June 1, Olson said he doesn’t expect DNR staff to police public health rules on what looks like will be a busy Memorial Day weekend for state beaches and parks.

“We did that last year,” Olson said, “but we’re not in that same place now.”

Michael Gerstein is a freelance writer.

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