Chris Shepler, a third-generation Shepler’s Ferry operator that transports visitors to Mackinac Island every season, struggled to describe the 2021 tourist season.
“This summer has been out of control, completely crazy,” he told Free Press. “Absolutely crazy. We set records for our busiest summer in company history.”
While William Henry “Cape” Shepler started the ferry service 77 years ago with a six-passenger speedboat, his grandson runs four large ferries from Mackinaw City and three boats from St. Ignace. every day at departure times of 15 minutes. and still had long queues.
“We have transported absolutely over 600,000 people this year to the island, maybe 650,000,” Shepler said. “On the wharf, we were working 60 to 80 hours a week. I took two days off between mid-June and mid-September. And it was the best staff we’ve ever had, hands down. “
While captains and deckhands were limited to 12-hour days, everyone was working tremendously overtime due to a labor shortage, he said.
To avoid the risk of turnover, Shepler granted wage increases as well as three separate bonuses based on the departure of seasonal workers. Those who stayed until October won the final bonus.
“Nobody complained. Nobody cried every hour they worked. The standard was 10 hours a day. We were working with 20% less staff and our overtime was off-standard,” he said. Still, the company has done very well with the profits. It set a record for both the volume of people carried and the profit, Shepler said.
The season traditionally runs from late April through October, although things have been a bit unpredictable for the past two years.
No Italy this year
Island business owners said a decline in domestic and foreign travel in 2020 appeared to be the main driver of this year’s success. While the island was open last year, the crowds weren’t huge. But 2021 has overtaken 2019 hotel bookings, retail sales and bar activity, business owners told Free Press.
People restricted by COVID-19 travel protocols, who still could not make it to Europe, instead traveled to Mackinac Island. Many visitors have discovered for the first time the iconic car-free island known for its hiking, biking and horse-drawn carriage rides. More people traveled from surrounding states and young couples.
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With so many canceled and restricted package travel offers, most visitors have come alone. That meant they had come to have fun rather than special offers with price cuts that often come with cruise ships, tour buses and corporate packages, the business owners said. So that meant more income too.
The cocktails flowed
Business has jumped at the Yankee Rebel Tavern and Gaslight Bar and Restaurant in Horn, owner Patti Ann Moskwa told The Free Press.
“I would say we’ve increased 20-25% at Yankee Rebel and Horn’s,” she said. “I think more and more people were coming from other states. We had people from Texas and Alabama. I spoke to a couple in Minnesota who said to me, ‘Where did we go without ever been here? ‘ ”
A cry for the “Pure Michigan” tourism campaign is definitely for the purpose of playing a key role in attracting out-of-state visitors, Moskwa said.
Plus, many weddings postponed by the pandemic have drawn younger crowds and huge advance bookings, Moskwa and others said.
Even the small Watercolor Cafe, which calls itself a coffee bean by day and an art studio by night, has seen a spike in activity. The increasingly popular off-the-beaten-path breakfast and lunch spot, which boasts its killer latte, is known as the little yellow building at Bay View B&B.
“Our traffic has grown really well,” said Kate Dupre, owner of the cafe that opened in 2019. “As business owners on the island, it was really good for morale. We are thrilled. for next season. “
On top of everything else, the unusually warm weather extended the huge traffic from the summer season into the fall, with temperatures reaching 70 degrees in mid-October.
While crowd management can be a big deal, staffing issues meant limited hours for some businesses on Mackinac Island.
“But it was always gangbusters,” said Todd Callewaert, whose family owns Mary’s Bistro, Island House Hotel, Pancake House & Grille, Seabiscuit Cafe, Starbucks and Ryba’s Fudge Shop.
“A lot of high-end clientele, the kind of people who came because they couldn’t go to Europe, they started coming to Mackinac Island. Nobody wanted to cross the Atlantic,” he said. -he declares. “We heard all the time, ‘We’ve never been here.’ And they can’t believe how beautiful the place is, and they keep coming back. “
Visitors who could get to Canada couldn’t, but those Canadians couldn’t visit either – so those border restrictions were reduced in both positive and negative ways, Callewaert said.
While 2019 was the best year ever for business, 2021 broke everything – with its hotel business up 30% and food services up 21% and fudge store sales up 18%. , he estimated.
All this despite reduced hours and the closure of one of the four fudge shops due to limited staff, Callewaert said. Prices have gone up because the costs of labor and food have gone up.
The supply chain disruption, which made headlines in the auto industry, also affected foods, including tomahawk steaks and some ribs, he said.
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In the end, pretty much everyone arrived at the end of the season feeling well.
Maybe no one more than James Bond, owner of Cloghaun Bed and Breakfast.
It hasn’t even opened in 2020, worried about customer safety and the management of security protocols for customers and staff. The team therefore focused on projects such as installing new hardwood floors, replacing five water heaters and updating the electrical system.
“But this is the best year we’ve ever had,” said Bond, the fourth generation owner. “They come from all over the place. They’ve been locked up and they just want to get out of town.”
Visitors from Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago filled his 11-bedroom house, built in 1884. “It’s been a hell of a year.”
Until September 1, overall hotel room revenue on the island for the 2021 season was on track to break the record year 2019 which generated $ 74.56 million, said Tim Hygh, executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, at Free Press.
Final data is yet to be analyzed for 2021, he said. “It came after the vaccinations, and people were so keen to travel. The market found us.”
The Grand Hotel is running a special “Close the Big” offer for the winter months, with guests arriving on October 31 and departing on November. 1 with rates ranging from $ 274 per person to $ 349 per couple for a buffet dinner, overnight stay, continental breakfast, and special events, including a visit with the resident historian, who shares interesting information.
As it all comes to a close for the season, Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud said she was hopeful what 2022 might bring in store. Often found at the front desk of the iconic Windermere Hotel, she serves herself the clients in addition to managing the island.
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“I still think we have to be careful. I can’t wait to get out of the pandemic but we are still in a pandemic,” said Doud, who has been re-elected mayor every year since 1975. “We want to work very hard to keep everyone safe and sound. I don’t think we can totally let our guard down yet. We’re just thankful for a happy new year and we’re hoping for the best. “
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