Sunrise Side Excitment
Winning Tours: Northeast Michigan Travel Group Wins Governor Award for Innovation
AU GRES – Michigan native Marge Ultach and her husband, Cal, have traveled across the world – from Australia to New Zealand and throughout the United States.
But it was a 2007 motor coach tour along Northeast Michigan’s Lake Huron coast that the South Bend, Indiana, residents recall most fondly.
“It was one of the best trips we were ever on,” Ultach says. “I’m from Michigan. I grew up there. But we saw places we never knew existed. From the first night at the Double Tree (in Bay City), to sailing on the Appledore, to lunch on the porch at Charity Island, it was great. The gourmet meal at Thunder Bay and their elk viewing carriage ride was one of the best times we experienced anywhere.”
These days, a growing number Northeast Michigan tourists are sharing those experiences thanks to Heidi Dewald, marketing director for Michigan Sunrise Tours. For three years now, Dewald and her cohorts at Michigan Sunrise Tours have been coaxing tour bus operators to visit this corner of the state.
Their efforts were recognized last week when Gov. Jennifer Granholm awarded the Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration to Michigan Sunrise Tours.
Along with Dewald, Granholm’s award saluted the work of Jack Mathias, owner of Thunder Bay Resort, and Bob and Karen Wiltse, owners of Charity Island Lighthouse, as well as folks at the promotional Develop Iosco, Inc. They are the ones who formed Michigan Sunrise Tours, intent on setting self-interest aside to focus more broadly on Northeast Michigan’s cumulative attractions.
Meant to applaud innovative, collaborative efforts in tourism promotion, the award was well deserved by MST members, said George A. Moroz, chair of the award selection committee.
“The award recognized new collaborative endeavors that were original enough in their design to help encourage and promote tourism in a tangible way, that’s to say it recognized groups that can serve as inspiration and as a model for other collaborative efforts throughout the state,” Moroz said.
More than that, the award presenters sought groups with a proven record and Michigan Sunrise Side has done that, too.
In 2006, when the promotional effort aimed at attracting tour buses began, four tour operators placed Charity Island on their itineraries. Last year, that number grew to 31 bus groups at Charity Island and nearly 50 buses have already booked stops this summer at Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman.
While the award recognized the shared work of many, it is Dewald who works so closely with tour bus operators that the effort seeks to attract, according to Helen Pasakarnis, TIFA director for the City of East Tawas.
“Heidi is vital to promoting this area,” Pasakarnis said. “She is the one who put all these tours together; she is the driving force behind bringing the tour bus operators to the area and she is the one who is booking all these attractions.”
For tour operators, the convenience of making one call to book a three- or four-day tour – an adventure offering high quality attractions and personalized service – is an offer they’ll take anytime, said Becky Wiegand, owner of Travel Starz, a motor coach company in South Bend, Indiana.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard that Heidi won that award, my people just loved her,” said Wiegand, noting folks often compared the Michigan tour to locations as exotic as Cape Cod.
That Wiegand’s “people” knew Dewald at all, tells something of the personal service she provides. At each stop along the tour, from Bay City to Macki to greet the bus and take care of needs. It’s service she would not provide any other way.
“I’m kind of a one stop shop,” Dewald said. “I do all the booking. I meet them and greet them at every stop. The big issue is customer service. You have to be aware of your customers and customer needs. That’s what keeps them coming back.”
It also helps win awards.