Students' research helps struggling Michigan tourism industry
The COVID-19-driven recession has ended for some businesses, but not for the hospitality industry.
Patty Janes, professor of hospitality and tourism management, said Michigan’s tourism industry has been devastated by the pandemic. She challenged students in her HTM research course to help rebuild the state’s tourism industry by conducting visitor research for Convention and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs) across the state.
“CVBs are responsible for marketing destinations to visitors,” explained Janes. “It’s crucial to have detailed insight about their visitors, the way in which they travel and their travel behaviors and patterns. And, it’s especially important to know how COVID-19 has impacted travel.”
Janes reached out to all of Michigan’s CVBs and more than half asked for the help. “From the Keweenaw Peninsula to Houghton Lake, and from Saugatuck to Frankenmuth, students conducted 18 visitor research studies for Michigan destinations,” she said.
Students worked directly with CVB executives to modify survey questions, collect data, analyze findings and report results, both verbally and in extensive reports. Overall, nearly 18,000 visitors responded to the research questionnaires prepared and sent by students.
Bridget Radzicki, a sophomore and HTM major, worked with a team of students for Discover Kalamazoo, the CVB in downtown Kalamazoo, to create a customized survey that was sent to previous visitors.
“We included questions about COVID and asked how the virus has impacted their travel experiences, what would make them feel more comfortable traveling and what would incentivize them to return during these times,” said Radzicki.
The students also worked to add questions unique to Kalamazoo. “Kalamazoo is known for its trails. We asked which trails are most popular, and how the visitor experience could be improved,” Radzicki said.
Taylor Johnston, a senior and HTM major, worked with the Saugatuck-Douglas Area CVB. She helped design a survey that was sent to more than 1,000 people.
“We sought to understand several objectives, including the demographic and geographic profile of a visitor,” said Johnston. “We also wanted to understand how COVID has impacted their life and travel habits.”
Johnston said through the responses they gained key insights into whether or not people had been traveling or are planning to travel. She said data showed people are wanting a get-away and are willing to travel to places that follow CDC guidelines.
“This real-world experience was very rewarding. Hypothetical situations or simulations can be helpful, but this required getting on a Zoom call regularly with a real client who had real needs and was tackling real issues. It was awesome,” Johnston said.
Janes said for some CVBs, it was the first time they received such a comprehensive report. She said some lack the internal expertise, while others have experienced a cut in staff and budget dollars.
As part of the project, Grand Valley’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy completed a GIS analysis of visitor zip codes so destinations better understand where their visitors came from.
As a result of the students’ work, Janes is continuing visitor research studies this semester. In addition, she is also combining the visitor responses and analyzing content themes to help the entire industry.
“They have agreed to allow me to combine like questions and share collective findings with others in the industry,” said Janes. "Learning collective feedback from so many visitors will help the myriad of tourism organizations including attractions, venues, festivals and events, restaurants, and lodging organizations."
For more information about the GVSU HTM program, visit gvsu.edu/htm