Is Fall Color Tourism Recession-Proof?

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost, 1923

Brilliant hues of green turning to gold are already in evidence among the trees that line Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive.

Just across the lake, in Michigan, early October means the waterfront is quiet. About 200 steps from the lake, along a tree-lined, sandy path, you’ll find yourself at The Inn at Union Pier.

Mid-week is quiet inside the inn, but owner Bill Jann is busy answering phones with people wanting to book rooms for the coming weekends.

In the height of tourist season in summer, the bed and breakfast is full seven days a week. People have usually booked a year in advance. In the fall, weekends are no less busy.

“People are surprised when I tell them we have a two-night minimum until November,” said Jann. “You know, we’re still in high season. Fall is a big time for us.

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The inn’s 16 rooms start at $150 a night.

This fall, weekend visits have held up. Even during the worst of the recession, weekend traffic was steady, Jann said.

He thinks fall’s crisp weather and vibrant landscape just lends itself to short getaways. He pointed outside to the yard, full of huge maples, giant oak and fir trees, as one of the inn’s selling points.

“They all turn into the most beautiful colors,” he said. “The only thing that stays green are the evergreens and the fir trees.”

Every evening, Jann serves his guests local Michigan wines – some from the Round Barn Winery.

Just a few miles from the inn, at the winery’s retail shop, workers are busy restocking shelves emptied over the weekend.

“Definitely the biggest weekends we will see yet will be coming soon,” said Amy Davis, who has been part of the tasting room staff for almost five years. “We’re looking to break some records this year.”

Davis said weekends in October are the busiest time of the year for the winery.

Round Barn makes wine, brews beer and distills brandies and the DiVine label vodka.
It was the wine that drew for Chicagoan Krissy Nielsen, who came up with her husband for a quick getaway.

“You know it’s not as warm as it is in the summer,” said Nielsen, as she and her husband stocked up on a few cases of wine. “I wanted to come, walk on the beach, have some fun with my man without the children.”

Tourism is Michigan’s second biggest industry – annually, about $15 billion. (Michigan, like most states, has a weekly Color Report, the latest forecast on best leaf color.) For towns like Union Pier, along Michigan’s Harbor Country, hospitality has helped replace jobs in canneries or factories like Whirlpool, said Viki Gudas, Harbor Country Visitor & Convention Bureau’s Director.

“Most of our manufacturing, of course, as in other towns, has gone away,” she said. “With the proximity to Chicago, we are booming as a quick getaway, especially for weekends.”

Nearby, Wisconsin also likes to tout itself as a drive-to destination. Tourists there spend almost $3 billion in the fall. It’s the state’s second-biggest season. (See Wisconsin’s color report here.)
Kelli Trumble is in charge of the Wisconsin’s Tourism Department. She said the “staycation” we saw during the worst of the recession is over.

“Now we’re seeing a trend for near-cations which is: I’m leaving – I’m not going to go real far, but I’m actually going to get up, get out and get away,” she said.

After all, in the words of Frost, nothing gold can stay.

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