By Craig Manning | April 6, 2022
If you’ve picked up a travel guidebook in the past 65 years, you probably know the name “Frommer.” Launched by Arthur Frommer in 1957, the Frommer’s series of travel guides now includes more than 350 titles and has sold over 75 million copies worldwide. Pauline Frommer – Arthur’s daughter and the co-president of Frommer Media – will be in Traverse City later this month to give a keynote address at the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism, scheduled for April 19-21 at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Ahead of the event, The Ticker caught up with Frommer about her ties to northern Michigan, her predictions for the future of travel in a post-COVID world, and her thoughts on hot-button hospitality issues like labor and short-term rentals.
Ticker: What’s your familiarity with northern Michigan?
Frommer: I spent some of the best summers of my life at Interlochen Arts Camp. I studied Shakespeare there, and I absolutely loved it. Being a New York City kid, I remember being stunned by the experience, because people would just smile at you, even if they didn’t know you and say, ‘How are you doing?’ It was just an open, trusting place.
Ticker: The leisure travel market crashed off a cliff two years ago, but has bounced back nicely. What do you predict for the next few years?
Frommer: We’ve seen a decimation of business travel, and that hasn’t really lifted. And the problem with that is, in certain ways, business travelers made travel less expensive for the leisure traveler. The airlines got into the habit of leaning on business travelers by charging them exorbitant prices for last-minute flights or business class seats. And because business travelers were overpaying, leisure travelers got a decent price. I don’t know when business travel will come back, or if it will come back in the same way, and that may lead to higher consumer prices. We’re already seeing that: Since January, airfares have gone up every five days. Right now, domestic airfares are 21 percent higher than they were in 2019. And it’s only going to get worse, because of the cost of gas.
Ticker: How are labor shortages impacting travel?
Frommer: I was talking to somebody about destination weddings, and they’re seeing smaller destination weddings because of staffing shortages. A lot of resorts are saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t handle a 200-person wedding right now. If you want to come to us, it’s going to need to be 125 max.’
Hospitality is arguably the biggest industry on the planet. By some estimates, one out of every 11 human beings works at hotels or restaurants, in train stations or airports, on planes. It’s a huge industry, and a lot of the jobs pay terribly. So, you have a lot of people right now saying, ‘I’m going to do better with my life,’ and that’s going to reshape the industry.
I’m currently updating our guidebook to New York City. I visited a new hotel where there’s an elaborate bar cart in every room, and every guest can call down to the bar and get a mixologist sent up to their room to make a drink. So that’s very, very high-touch. But the day before, I went to a Japanese chain hotel where it’s all going to be automated. They have what they’re calling ‘magic closets,’ where you put your clothes in, shut the door, press a button, and everything gets steamed and disinfected. So that’s the dichotomy: high-touch for the luxury set, automation for the rest of us.
One positive thing is that, with Trump gone, a lot of what he did in terms of restricting short-term guest worker visas is being lifted. Those policies really hurt the travel industry, because for decades, you’ve had people coming from Jamaica, and from Colombia, and from all parts of the world to work during our high season of travel. That’s what’s kept travel affordable. And when those pieces were gone, a lot of a lot of small businesses in tourist destinations were in deep, deep trouble.
Ticker: A trend we’re seeing in Michigan since the pandemic is that people have reconnected with outdoor attractions, which maybe require less of a labor force.
Frommer: Absolutely. That’s been a huge trend that I don’t think shows any sign of letting up. Arches National Park [in Utah] had to close its gates 20 times last year, because their parking lots kept filling. Yellowstone had a million more visitors in 2021 than it did in 2020.
Another trend that I think will stay: Because a lot of attractions needed to enforce social distancing, they started requiring advance reservations. Museums, theme parks, ski resorts: They all realized, ‘Wow, this makes our planning much easier.’
Ticker: What do you see as Michigan’s biggest asset as a tourist destination? Our biggest challenge?
Frommer: One of your biggest assets is that you can’t go more than six miles without hitting a body of water in Michigan. Local folks have done a great job getting every ounce of fun out of those waterways. Last year, I went to see the ribbon-cutting for the aquatic trail that opened in Gaylord. It’s one of the only aquatic trails in the United States. It’s like a hiking trail, but you travel from place to place on the water. You can paddle for 2-3 days, and there’s new signage that shows where you can pull up your boats, where the facilities are, etc. It’s all on an app, and it’s also on signs by the side of the river.
As for challenges, I don’t think everyone in the country knows about the beauty of Michigan. People in the Midwest do, but I’ve been talking about Michigan in California and New York, and people have no idea. I think you need to raise the profile of the state. There are other states that have done a better job of letting the public know what fun things are out there.
Ticker: What’s the chatter in the travel industry about short-term rentals?
Frommer: By some estimates, 30 percent of all homes sold now are sold as investments, which is really driving up the cost of homeownership. I was watching PBS the other night, and they were saying we’re seven million units short on low-income housing, which is tragic. There just aren’t enough homes.
I think we’re going to see more communities pushing back [against short-term rentals]. For example, New York City has long had a rule on the books limiting rentals of less than 30 days, but it was impossible to enforce. Now, the city is putting the onus on the platforms to prove that the person [renting out their property] got a very special, hard-to-get license to do so. If they don’t, the platform gets fined. So, I think cities are going to keep making it harder for Airbnb to do its business.
Ticker: We have regulations on short-term rentals in our town, but we also have legislators at the state level trying to make it so local jurisdictions can’t regulate those rentals.
Frommer: I guess it all depends on where your politicians are getting their money. Because in many destinations, the hotel lobbies are pushing to make it harder to do vacation rentals; the political might is behind the hotels and against vacation rentals. And then I guess in other communities, maybe Airbnb dimes it up.