Many cruises in the Great Lakes depart from Chicago. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): The Great Lakes feature 9,000 miles of beachy coastline — more than the U.S. East and Gulf coasts combined. // © 2017 Getty Images
The Great Lakes region (GLR) of the U.S. Midwest has long been cast aside by domestic travelers in favor of New England tradition, Southern hospitality and West Coast laissez-faire. (The long, grueling winters don’t seem to help matters, either.)
But to write off such a large and ecologically diverse part of North America — a region that includes eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and the largest freshwater system on Earth — as merely flyover country would be a grave mistake.
The GLR encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in addition to Ontario and Quebec in Canada. If this massive region was its own country, it would be the 12th-largest in the world by population (while operating the third-largest economy). Its borders contain lively metropolitan areas — Chicago; Milwaukee; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Toronto, to name a few — with many urban hubs rubbing shoulders with idyllic, well-preserved pockets of rural America. And although the region doesn’t border an ocean, its 9,000 miles of beaches offer more coastline than the U.S. East and Gulf coasts combined.
Despite these advantages, the GLR has experienced a significant challenge establishing itself as a tourism destination. According to a tourism trends study unveiled in April at the Great Lakes Economic Forum in Detroit, tourists to the region tend to be leisure-focused daytrippers who hail from neighboring areas and who are hard-pressed to loosen their purse strings in favor of travel-related spending.
“The GLR has everything it needs to be a world-class destination, and yet the region is not capturing its share of global visitors and tourism revenues,” said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), which published the study in partnership with the tourism, hospitality and leisure department of Deloitte. “As a region, we need to do a much better job of promoting the unique destinations that exist in the Great Lakes to travel agents located across the U.S. and Canada, as well as other international markets.”
But Fisher and his team at CGLR — a nonpartisan, binational nonprofit focused on harnessing the region’s economic strengths while protecting the environment for future generations — are proposing to develop the first-ever tourism strategy for the area, which would include joint marketing and promotional efforts from the U.S. and Canada.
“The strength of attractions and diversity of experiences that exist when one considers this region as a whole are incredible,” added Brad Hutchings, a partner in Deloitte’s tourism and hospitality department. "There truly is something for everyone within the Great Lakes."
And their timing couldn’t be much better — a healthy U.S. economy, an unprecedented rate for summer travel spending and a rising interest in domestic travel are all positive signs for the region’s development.
What’s more, the area has become increasingly attractive to commission-paying suppliers — including cruise lines and tour operators — prompting agents to take a second look.
Here’s all you need to know about exploring — and selling — the GLR.
From Sea to Inland Sea
The five great lakes — Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior — hold 84 percent of the continent’s supply of freshwater and are home to one of the most ecologically diverse ecosystems on Earth. Those who flock to its shores have a wide range of outdoor activities available to them, including fishing (or ice fishing in the chilly months), kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and even surfing.
The cruise industry has seen potential here, too, with several lines offering itineraries that lure clients from the shores and onto these massive freshwater seas.
Jeanne Psychas, a Great Lakes specialist for Great Lakes Cruise Company in Ann Arbor, Mich., says the organization, a subsidiary of Conlin Travel, Inc., collaborates with GLR cruise lines to help advisors match clients with the perfect itinerary.
“People don’t know a lot about the GLR and how fascinating the lakes are, or how large they are,” she said. “These are not the crazy party cruises of the Caribbean, by any means. The ships on the Great Lakes offer more of an enrichment experience.”
One reason for this is that the lakes only host small ships — which hold approximately 200 passengers or fewer — to easily maneuver the locks and canals that connect the various ports.
They also tend to attract an older crowd, rather than families or party-hard spring breakers, and will interest clients who want to learn about the area’s rich history.
“There’s a warmth that comes from the mature communities that have a deep heritage going back to the founding of America itself,” said Bruce Nierenberg, president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines. “The pace of life out on the West Coast can be pretty fast. The pace of life in the small towns we visit on our Great Lakes cruises will be a great respite from this.”
Victory Cruise Lines is currently in its second season sailing the GLR (a typical season runs from mid-May to mid-October), and the line will add a second vessel in summer 2018. Highlights of a Great Lakes itinerary with Victory may include navigating the 1,000 Islands corridor; visiting Manitoulin, the world’s largest freshwater island; and touring Michigan’s iconic, Victorian-era Mackinac Island.
The line is also developing a new advisor program that will provide agents with tools they need to sell both Great Lakes cruises and the region itself. It will be unveiled at the end of the summer.
Blount Small Ship Adventures, which operates ships that carry up to 84 passengers, also offers an on-the-water look at the GLR. Featured itineraries include the 16-day Great American Waterways Cruise, which traverses four of the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal; and the eight-day Magical Lake Michigan Cruise, departing roundtrip from Chicago with port stops that include Beaver Island and Mackinac Island, along with Sturgeon Bay and Milwaukee in Wisconsin.
“When the vessel is docked, clients can get on and off hassle-free and are away from crowded ports,” said Kayla Setters, marketing coordinator for Blount. “The diversity of this region allows clients to explore authentically restored villages, friendly Midwestern cities and the lakes’ beautiful coast.”
A typical first-timer’s cruise generally begins in Montreal or Toronto and disembarks in Chicago, according to Nierenberg.
JoAnne Verboom, president of the Great Lakes chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents and president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Travel By Gagnon, recently had one of her agents book such a cruise.
The clients, who are repeat Travel By Gagnon customers, knew what they wanted before they even arrived at the agency’s storefront location, she says. When all was said and done, the couple had spent more than $18,000 on an 11-day Great Lakes cruise from Pearl Seas Cruises, departing from Toronto and ending in Chicago.
Verboom said her clients’ interest surprised her — it was her agency’s first GLR cruise booking in her more than 30 years of business.
But advisors should work to familiarize themselves with this sector of cruising, says Psychas of Great Lakes Cruise Company, as it has the potential to be quite lucrative. She says an average cabin can sometimes go for as much as $14,000.
Another reason agents should take note? A Great Lakes cruise provides a safe domestic travel option for consumers nervous about traveling abroad.
“The current international tension concerning safety in travel and terrorism has driven more customers to these types of trips,” Nierenberg said. “Alaska and the Great Lakes have been the big winners and have seen significant growth as a result.”
Land That I Love
Although the Great Lakes cruise sector is certainly gaining traction, clients looking to avoid a case of sea legs have several options, too.
Roadtrippers can rent a car and map their route around the lakes by following a Great Lakes Circle Tour, a scenic road system developed in 1988 that circumnavigates all five lakes and the St. Lawrence River. (Clients can choose to follow just one lake or incorporate all five.)
Or, they can opt for rail travel. Although Amtrak doesn’t have a route specifically dedicated to circumnavigating the Great Lakes, Jim Marini, director of sales for Yankee Leisure Group, the parent company of Amtrak Vacations, reports that clients who book Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited route from Chicago to Boston have “expressed seeing beautiful historic landscapes in the Great Lakes region.” (The route skirts the shorelines of Lake Michigan, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.)
And clients who book with East Lansing, Mich.-based operator America by Rail, Inc. can plan a rail vacation based entirely around the Great Lakes. The operator’s Great Lakes Circle Tour is available this year, and a new Great Lakes Family Adventure is in the works for 2018.
Tim Swartz, president of America by Rail, characterizes rail travel as low-risk, believing it has strong appeal for those looking for physical comfort rather than speed. He says the operator’s Midwest and Eastern tours in particular are popular with Western-based clients.
“The train provides views that are unavailable from other modes of transportation,” he said. “Clients are free to walk around and go to the lounge for snacks, beverages and conversation. Many trains have a Sightseer Lounge with seats facing floor-to-ceiling windows.”
Escorted tour companies are hopping onboard, too.
In 2017, The Globus Family of Brands introduced a new eight-day Mackinac Island & the Great Lakes tour from Detroit to Chicago. As of press time, all but one of the scheduled 2017 departures are sold out. (Early booking options are available for 2018.)
“While the Midwest is a lesser-known and -visited region of the U.S. compared to the East or West coasts, it’s full of surprises,” said Wendy Mainerich, product manager for North America for Globus.
“This tour shares insights into the history and region-specific traditions of the area, highlights the most scenic spots and delves into delivering the best regional food and more, with help from local experts.”
Agents should discuss the GLR’s wide variety of experiences — both well-known and off-the-radar — with clients, Mainerich adds.
“Travelers who visit the Great Lakes have typically traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and are looking for new places to check off their bucket list,” she said. “They might want to ‘see Lake Michigan’ or ‘stay on Mackinac Island.’ But this itinerary offers them more than that.”
Globus also offers “Local Favorites” excursions, which may include an authentic Bavarian dinner in Frankenmuth, Mich., a region known for its Bavarian-style architecture, or a visit to a fruit orchard where clients take a wagon ride and enjoy a slice of famous Michigan cherry pie.
Verboom of Travel by Gagnon says she is impressed by the Globus itinerary, especially since it features her favorite of all the region’s attractions: Mackinac Island.
“There’s no place like it in the world,” she said. “If clients want to go somewhere unique, enjoy being outdoors and enjoy history, Mackinac is a perfect destination.”
But, when it comes down to it, clients can’t go wrong with wherever they choose to visit, CGLR’s Fisher says.
“From Michigan’s dunes and lighthouses to New York’s Adirondack Mountains and Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, the GLR offers global and domestic tourists a range of unique, all-season destinations that are affordable, accessible and unforgettable,” he said.