Northeast Michigan was under the magnifying glass this month. Most had no idea that we hosted a unique group of guests who had never previously heard of Alpena. These guests descended upon our community and compared us to others, analyzed, reviewed, and picked us apart like seagulls scoping out the best picnic to crash.
Fortunately, our guests were not seagulls. They were more than a dozen international journalists who specialize in writing travel features for newspapers, magazines, and digital publications across the globe. They represented such entities as the Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, Expedia.com, Midwest Living and AFAR magazine to name a few. Collectively, the group had been everywhere before coming to Alpena. You name it and they had experienced it. Trips to the Galapagos Islands, a 10 day unsupported canoe trip through Mexico, adventures in Brazil, Thailand, Bali, Italy, and even a polar plunge in Antarctica. What they had yet to experience prior to their arrival, was Alpena.
I worked with Travel Michigan (the folks responsible for the Pure Michigan campaign) to connect with these writers. The idea is that they travel to a location, experience the culture, heritage, and beauty, and then use their experience for inspiration to write positive articles and stories about our special place on the map.
When I was trying to select what type of itinerary and excursions to set up for the group I just decided to do what we do best and I created an agenda that allowed history to mingle with relaxed outdoor adventure. That is who we are. We are that place where history and heritage collide with outdoor recreation. And we lived up to that expectation to the fullest.
The adventure was full of relaxed activity, education, and incredible food. Kayaking, lighthouses, shipwrecks, historical education, culinary creations, and simple good old-fashioned cordiality across the community cemented a lasting impression with our guests.
Almost everyone we encountered during the trip represented Alpena with pride, warmth, and hospitality. Food servers shared information about the history of their restaurant, local shop owners made guests feel like the most important customers, even the weather cooperated with one of the most spectacularly calm days on Lake Huron for the glass-bottom boat adventure.
Our guests were impressed with Alpena and all Northeast Michigan has to offer. They all said they were surprised that this isn't just a small town. This is a small town with a big story to tell.
Does this mean we should take off our apron and call it a day? Good heavens no. As the group was wrapping up its whirl-wind tour of Northeast Michigan I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought of us. Comments like, "this seems to be one of those rare places where America is still genuine and authentic;" "it is refreshing to see a community embrace their history and use it to define their present;" and even, "I have to figure out a way to get back here again."
It didn't seem to matter that they had traveled the globe 10 times over - Alpena impressed them. Considering their experience with so many other communities, I asked for feedback on how we could do things better. Two of the writers asked for the nearest jogging trail so they could experience the city from the ground up. I pointed them to the Bi-Path. They couldn't believe how extensive our inner-city trail system is and their only feedback was that they didn't always know where to turn to stay on the path. That's it. That doesn't even sound like a problem to me; it sounds like a project. Alpena impressed our guests.
There are three morals to this story. The first is that you're always on stage. You never know who may be out there watching so you'd better bring your A-game. The second moral is that even though something may seem ordinary to us; someone else out there believes it to be extraordinary. Lastly, you don't have to be flashy to leave an impact. You just have to be you.
To the visitor, we are the lucky ones. We are the ones who can wake up every day and breathe in fresh air, peer out at lush green forests and refreshing sapphire waters; we can commute to work in minutes; and take a break in the middle of the day to go for a canoe paddle along a river that greets us like an old friend. We are the lucky ones in that we remember where we came from and can use it to guide the course ahead. We are the lucky ones. We get to call Alpena home.
Mary Beth Stutzman's Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.