Featured on mml.org
By Jennifer Eberbach
Community-wide cultural events impact us. They express the charm of our cities, villages, and townships. They put fun back into our lives when we need it the most. They also bring business to downtown, generate tourism, and sustain communities through the slow months. If you are just dying to brave the cold, jump into a frozen lake and let your kids paint their faces like a tiger while you cheer on the parade, then Michigan has got you covered. From ice fishing in Tawas Bay, at their annual Perchville USA event, to racing your snowmobile across Sault Ste. Marie or Caro during Midwest International Racing Association events, Michigan’s winter festivals capture our state’s spirit and get people excited.
Profiling a selection of Michigan’s winter festivals, it becomes apparent that these events have a positive impact on local businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, retail shops, and restaurants. A well-planned event can be used as a tool that generates community spirit and economic growth during tough months. It gets serious, but it’s also about having fun.
Houghton Lake’s winter festival Tip-Up Town USA is celebrating its 60th anniversary. For its diamond anniversary, a diamond studded entrance badge will be raffled off to one lucky attendee. Event planner George Geisenhaver of the Houghton Lake Chamber of Commerce, explains many badge collectors have held on to their personal experiences of the festival by holding on to these items—even passing them down from generation to generation. This attests to the impact the event has on individuals. Along with reoccurring events like “turkey bowling,” a polar bear dip, and a family-friendly carnival, this year’s installment of Tip-Up Town will feature a second-annual family skate night, which has been extended to both weekends, airboat rides for an extra fee, and illuminated torch parades at dusk around the lake.
Geisenhaver thinks the event has had a positive impact on tourism and the economic health of Houghton Lake’s business community. “This event really helps us through the month of January, which would typically be a slow month for people in other northern Michigan communities. The event draws in thousands of people. It’s pretty important for the businesses here,” he says.
The Frostbite Festival in Harrison, Michigan has roots that were planted 21 years ago, however the event has only recently transformed into a city-wide festival featuring a wide range of activities. For years, golfers headed out on the frozen lake for an annual ice-golf tournament where participants bat around tennis balls. Frostbite has expanded to include snowmobile races, a carnival, sleigh rides, an ice fishing contest, and a ton of other events and activities, on top of the traditional ice-golf outing.
Frostbite planners wanted to encourage local businesses and restaurants to get involved in the festival. Collectively, downtown businesses will be competing in the festival’s snow sculpting contest, honoring discounts and specials to Frostbite event badge holders, and planning special events.
As the event takes on a new shape, festival planner Tammy Carlstrom has found that “the enthusiasm of the Frostbite Festival committee has been contagious,” and she is pleased that “everyone is excited to get involved and help,” she says. “It needed a facelift,” Carlstrom concludes.
Caseville, Michigan’s Shanty Days features one of the largest parades in Michigan, drawing around 100,000 people. Shanty Days “used to be the big event in town,” centered around snowmobile races, explains Ann Clark of the Caseville Chamber of Commerce. However, “A lot of northern communities had dropped their winter festivals, but it’s coming back now,” she says. Back to life and in the mindset of being better than ever, Shanty Days now features 10 days of diverse activities.
Clark says that “Human Bowling” has been one of the most popular new events. Planners also wanted to make sure that kids had plenty to do, because these events “contribute to their memories. For the children who come, those are memories that last forever of things you did with your family,” says Clark. This year, kid-friendly activities will include a “Potty Trotty,” the Polar Bear Dip, and they can participate in “Human Bowling,” as well as other games and creative activities.
Clark encourages people to “rediscover northern Michigan,” and thinks festivals are a great way to draw in tourism, business, and people in general. In and around Caseville, many retirees leave during the cold months, and “things are definitely quieter here in the winter, but that doesn’t mean that things stop. There’s not the high level of energy that there is during the spring, summer, and fall. But there is energy here that people sustain.” She adds that Shanty Days serves as a draw during slow months that sustains motels, hotels, businesses, and restaurants.
Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth has become a player in the world of competitive snow-carving, in the midwest and the world. For this year’s Zehnder’s Snowfest, they are combining two separate competitions that they have hosted in past years to form the new “World-Class Snow-Carving Competition.” Teams from around the U.S. and the world will compete. This year’s event will also feature master ice sculptor Greg Butowski, who will transform 60 blocks of ice into “The Lost City of Atlantis.”
The event also includes a college ice tournament and a state-wide ice carving competition for high schoolers. Zehnder’s representative Linda Kelly explains that as a creative pursuit, “The art of ice and snow-carving is kind of minimal. Not very many people do it. So, we promote it through the high schools and elementary schools—to benefit future generations,” and she agrees that Zehnder’s involvement with students is a great example of how education, events, art, and community can work together toward a shared goal.
The biggest improvement to the fourth installment of Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Winter WonderFest is that “you’re gonna see more activities in the downtown area,” explains Mike Norton, media relations for the Traverse City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. When the festival first began three years ago, activities were hosted at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, and only one activity happened downtown. Last year, activities were added at the Mount Holiday Ski Area. This year, even more activities will happen downtown on Front Street.
Downtown restaurants are competing in the “Soup’r Bowl” again this year to make a go at the best bowl of warmness on a cold day. Norton explains that this was the anchor event in the downtown area in the past, but “we knew we needed more things to keep people occupied. When they came downtown, they enjoyed that event, but then they wanted to know, what else is there to do?”
The answer is, this year’s downtown activities will include a “Frozen Bed Race,” a cherry pit spitting contest, a “brain-freeze” ice cream eating contest, and a 21+ beer tent for the adults. Another unique addition to the Cherry Festival is a large-scale laser light show, which will be projected on a huge metallic screen stretching down Front Street.
According to Norton, “There is a geographical disconnect between the resort area and the downtown area. We wanted to bring some of that celebration, some of those events, into the center of town,” because it generates tourism, supports downtown businesses, and facilitates “the totality of a Traverse City weekend, which includes our commercial areas and a walkable, quaint downtown.”
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or