Giant inflatable gnomes. A silent disco. An outdoor drag show.
These are all parts of the World of Winter Festival that fills downtown Grand Rapids with art installations and free events for two months. It’s one of many winter festivals celebrating Michigan as a four-season state while generating tourism dollars during a typically slow season.
“We identified that January, February, March time in downtown Grand Rapids has historically been a little quieter, a little less activity downtown,” said Bill Kirk, communications director at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “So, we wanted to fill that gap in the calendar to provide year-round activity.”
Related: Get downtown: ‘World of Winter’ takes over Grand Rapids with art
There’s the Michigan Ice Festival in Munising, Grand Haven Winterfest, the Southern Michigan Winter Beer Festival in Jackson and Zehnder’s Snowfest in Frankenmuth.
And in the northernmost part of the Upper Peninsula, Brad Barnett, executive director of the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau, described the winter season as a “three-legged stool.” Michigan Tech University has been hosting the Winter Carnival for a century, the CopperDog 150 brings out the sled dogs and skiers compete in the Great Bear Chase.
“Summer is the busiest time of year for us,” Barnett said. “But if we didn’t have our snow economy and we didn’t have these winter festivals, it would be really hard for main street businesses to make it throughout the year.”
Related: Huge snow sculpture of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory wins U.P. contest
An estimated 70,000 visitors went to Houghton and Keweenaw counties at a peak in July 2021, according to state data, with numbers sloping down to 10,000 in November. But a February bump brought 24,000 tourists to the region.
Part of the draw is Keweenaw’s average 270 inches of annual snow, popular among skiers and snowmobilers. But Barnett says winter festivals play an important role in sustaining the county’s $100 million visitor economy – a lifeblood for 61% of the county’s employment tied to tourism.
“Every time a visitor comes to the area, they spend a couple of nights with us. On average, they spend anywhere from $300 to $500 per person in our community,” Barnett said. “And that goes a long way because that’s money coming from outside of the community into our community.”
In Grand Rapids, World of Winter brings thousands of people to hotspots throughout the city.
Lights recreating Van Gogh’s Starry Night sit on the banks of the Grand River, a collection of “ice games” were set up north of downtown and fire dancers twirled on the Rosa Parks Circle ice rink. Locally-owned food trucks parked at some of the festival’s biggest events. Plus, bars and restaurants sit blocks away from the outdoor art installations.
Related: Ice becomes large, vibrant painting as part of Grand Rapids World of Winter
“We don’t need to shut down in the wintertime and hibernate until the springtime,” Kirk said. “So, we’ve tried to figure out creative ways to activate spaces to create opportunities for people to come downtown during those months.”
World of Winter, now in its third year, launched after the pandemic confirmed the downtown agency’s inkling that people want to get out during the winter. Hosted by the nonprofit, the festival has grown every year with crowds filling Calder Plaza and Ah-Nab-Awen Park.
During the first two weekends in early January, 12,000 people reportedly attended the festival. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., using cell phone and foot traffic data from Placer.ai, estimates the eight large World of Winter events averaged about 2,000 visitors each. Plus Kirk said people headed downtown daily for smaller events, walking tours and to see the art installations.
At Oh Hello, a downtown Grand Rapids paper and gifts store, foot traffic is up this winter. The shop’s co-owner and brand manager Alex Benda attributes World of Winter events to bringing in more customers.
“Not to mention, our store sales are up over last year as this is the strongest year since we opened,” he said in an email.
Smack dab in the middle of northern Michigan, Houghton Lake has hosted Tip-Up Town for 73 years.
The January festival involves ice races, ice fishing and a winter carnival with key events taking place on the 20,000-acre Houghton Lake. Melissa Sullivan, spokesperson for Tip-Up Town, says tourism supports a variety of businesses from AirBnb owners to coffee shops selling lattes.
“I don’t think any of these areas would falter if these festivals didn’t happen,” she said. “We’re strong. We’re Northern Michigan strong. However, I don’t think life would be the way it is without things like that drawing tourists to our area.”
Related: Houghton Lake’s Tip-Up Town 2023 will go on despite weather woes
The catch for winter festivals: they often rely on weather.
Warm temperatures this year forced Tip-Up Town to adapt by moving vents off ice and on to land. But Sullivan, who’s been involved in the festival for 25 years and was crowned queen in 2011, says she’s experienced “every type of weather” at the January festival.
“I’ve been at really snowy, miserably cold Tip-Up Towns and I’ve been at 40-degree Tip-Up Towns,” she said. “I see more people having fun when the weather’s kind of like it was this year because they’re not facing those brutal elements. They’re getting out more, they play more and they do things.”
For Keweenaw County, which experienced periods of “snow drought” this winter, Barnett says festivals sustain the winter economy by bringing those who might not be a “hardcore snow sports enthusiast” to the region.
“It hasn’t been the greatest in terms of weather conditions this year,” he said. “And these winter events really tide us over, bring people to the area, fill our hotel rooms and fill our restaurants downtown.”
Both the CopperDog 150 and Great Bear Chase are still on the calendar for Keweenaw County. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. is wrapping up two months of outdoor festivities. And Tip-Up Town is prepared to be flexible next year.
“Even though we had be reactive during the moment, next year we’re going to be proactive,” Sullivan said.
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