With summertime sun and fun just around the corner, wineries across the state are preparing for significant upticks in business as COVID-19 vaccination rates go up and infection rates are going down.
According to CNN, the travel website Expedia has seen bookings for summer accommodations and travel skyrocket over the past couple of weeks — a trend that is not expected to die out any time soon. That means hospitality and management staff in Michigan are focused on providing plenty of opportunities for leisure while continuing to maintain Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that keep tourists safe.
Kathy Sturm, executive director of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail in West Michigan, says when the pandemic first began, she focused on working with the state as well as local agencies and organizations to determine which protocols were applicable and how to effectively communicate them to the trail’s 15 member wineries. It was important for everyone to deliver consistent messaging, she says, because being in a region with high tourist traffic meant people would be coming from numerous states, potentially risking employee safety if travelers weren’t aware of local restrictions.
“Looking back, I think we did a great job of communicating not only to the wineries, but also to those who were wanting to do wine tastings once we were able to open,” Sturm says, adding that the pause allowed the wine trail to “take a deep breath” and reassess what it was providing for both members and the local community.
Over the course of 2020, Sturm says, the wineries amassed significant goodwill from visitors compared to other tourist hotspots because they did such an excellent job keeping people safe while offering tasting experiences in outdoor settings. Nevertheless, the capacity restrictions that are still in place have caused Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail to cancel its summer festival, held annually since 2015, again this year. At the same time, individual wineries are planning smaller events such as live music performances.
“We’re looking at future events from a different perspective and also maybe a different platform so that we’re able to showcase the wines,” Sturm says, adding that the industry can’t speculate about what’s going to happen with coronavirus in the future and just has to take things day by day.
“That’s the beauty of the wineries here in Southwest Michigan, because they are made up of farmers,” she says. “And farmers, for generations, have been able to adjust accordingly because it all depends on the weather.
“That’s more or less what we’re doing in relation to COVID.”
Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, says the region was definitely hurt by the pandemic in 2020 but was lucky in that it was able to recover more quickly because northern Michigan’s restrictions were removed earlier than elsewhere in the state. Tkach’s organization also helped local businesses by providing educational resources on digital marketing during the pandemic, applying COVID guidelines effectively and requesting federal or state financial assistance.
“It wasn’t like you could have a competitive advantage on this,” Tkach says. “It’s like either we all do it well or none of us get to do it at all. … If only one or two people are doing it really poorly, there’s a chance that we all get shut down. So we worked really hard to make sure everybody understood what it was going to take to stay open.”
Tkach also agrees that the wine industry’s — and more broadly, northern Michigan’s —dependence on agriculture and recreation makes it more resilient to upheavals because continuing to serve customers despite unpredictable weather throughout the year is typical there. During the pandemic, being outdoors has become even more normalized across businesses, although the way people engage with wineries in particular has changed.
“From the anecdotes that I hear, it seems as though people were going to wineries and spending more time at one winery, getting to know that product better and probably spending not only more time, but more money,” he says. “It was more about quality than quantity last year; it was less about hitting a bunch of wineries, probably more about going to a couple and having a really, really deep, immersive experience in that space.”
Tkach is optimistic for the coming summer. Vaccinations are making consumers feel more confident, he says. Accordingly, there’s “a lot of pent-up demand” for leisure travel — hotels, for example, are seeing increases in pre-bookings. The biggest challenge will be finding enough employees to staff all the businesses that need them.
“That could be the only thing that hamstrings us this coming year is that, you know, there’s a lot of people who still haven’t come back into the workforce, and traditionally, northern Michigan, because of its seasonal demand, depends on H-2B and J-1 visa programs,” he says.
They’re among temporary work visa programs that were temporarily suspended due to COVID. While an order suspending many such programs expired March 31, delays in processing applications could affect those who are ready to return to work. Nevertheless, Tkach says businesses got very creative in 2020 in terms of making up for staffing shortages while still providing quality service.
At Fenn Valley Vineyards, Brian Lesperance, vice president of operations and winemaking, says that his winery is also expecting larger summer crowds and planning outdoor events and tours. The main difference this year is that they will offer refunds instead of moving crowds indoors if there is rain. That said, that same thread of optimism still prevails.
“Our staff — in particular, our retail staff — is basically 100 percent fully vaccinated at this point,” he says. “That’s certainly given us a lot of confidence to serve the public safely and has definitely made the environment just a little less stressful around here.”