Why Michigan’s top travel expert thinks tiny Norton Shores is best part of the Mitten

Dave Lorenz’s job has him crisscrossing the state to promote the Pure Michigan brand. And while he enjoys all of Michigan’s top tourist attractions, the Travel Michigan VP explains why Muskegon County is the place he loves to call home.

The sun never sets without David Lorenz being asked this question: What’s your favorite place in Michigan?

As the longtime vice president of Travel Michigan — the state’s travel office and keeper of the feel-good Pure Michigan tourism campaign — Lorenz traverses the state extensively. He chuckles that Travel Michigan isn’t just where he works, it’s his job description.

For the record, he loves all of Michigan’s top tourist attractions: Mackinac Island, The Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Tahquamenon Falls, and Pictured Rocks, etc. 

He’s also sweet on lesser-regaled gems that make perfect one- or two-day trips, including Alpena, Marshall, Lexington, Baldwin, and Calumet. 

He lauds educational and cultural travelers whose curiosity beckons them off well-beaten paths to explore places like Idlewild, Amish enclaves, and the Old Sauk Trail, a path from present-day Detroit to Chicago that — no kidding — was trampled down by the migratory patterns of mastodons.

Lakes that look like oceans. Food fresh from the farm. Unspoiled natural areas and hubs of world-class innovation. Count on Lorenz to pitch Michigan as a great place to live, work, and play. 

But one must ask twice before Lorenz divulges the place that is his personal No. 1.
It’s the log home that he and his wife, Roberta “Birdie,” built 37 years ago in Norton Shores, where they raised their son, Tyler, now a mechanic at a Kalamazoo BMW dealership. The Lorenz home is a short drive from Dave’s hometown, Cloverville, a village so tiny that many fellow Muskegon County residents have never heard of it. Lorenz wryly describes it as a “suburb of Fruitport.”
Vice president of Travel Michigan Dave Lorenz at home in Norton Shores.
“We’ve got the beauty of the woods and Lake Michigan nearby,” Lorenz says of his home. “We’re secluded, yet we have everything the cities, Muskegon and Grand Haven, have to offer close at hand. This place is perfect for us — and continues to be so.”

Off the job, Lorenz is content to stay put

Friends assumed that Dave and Birdie would be moving to Lansing when Dave left a position in partnerships and promotions at Meijer Inc. to join the small Travel Michigan staff as managing director almost 20 years ago. 

After all, the Travel Michigan office in Lansing is 102.4 miles from Norton Shores, and that’s a whopper of a daily commute.

Lorenz says he never considered uprooting Birdie from her position as a special education teacher with Fruitport Community Schools, selling their log house, or leaving the community where they have meaningful social and family ties. 

“Birdie just shrugged and said, ‘If you can take the commute, you can take the job,’” Lorenz recalls. 

Since joining Travel Michigan in October 2002, he’s worn out several vehicles and logged more than 1 million miles between commuting to work and doing the work of Travel Michigan. Nevertheless, to him, the time and expense spent driving are worth being at home with Birdie, who’s now retired, every night that he possibly can.

“It’s always a pleasure to tell people the state tourism director lives in Norton Shores,” says Bob Lukens, community development director of Muskegon County. “Dave and Birdie frequently hike PJ Hoffmaster State Park, and I know he often runs in Grand Haven. On occasion, Dave works from my office here in the Union Depot in downtown Muskegon, and he always loves seeing the growth and progress underway in Muskegon and Muskegon County.

“Because of his very busy travel schedule, Dave can’t get to downtown Muskegon as often as he’d like, yet he is usually available to attend events and speak on tourism and the growth happening in Muskegon County,” Lukens adds. “He’s always happy to see the people of his hometown.”

Lorenz says he loves serving as vice president of Travel Michigan, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., because it provides him with daily opportunities to make a difference in the lives of Michigan residents — as well as a living for himself. 

Travel, he explains, is the ideal prevention and antidote for racism because it introduces people to one another and allows them to see that there are far more commonalities than differences. 

The making of a statewide tourism director

Lorenz’s career trajectory in the travel and tourism profession has been remarkable, considering that he counts his first job in the industry as the dishwashing gig that he had as a teenager at Big T Family Restaurant on Apple Avenue in Muskegon.

Lorenz was aspiring to a career in radio when, after graduating from Fruitport High School, he enrolled at Western Michigan University and declared a communications major. 

Although he was always a good student, Lorenz describes himself as “a stupid kid who didn’t know anything about applying for grants and scholarships.”

Wary of taking on debt to fund his education, Lorenz worked four part-time jobs as a full-time student in a valiant effort to earn enough money each semester to pay for his next. 

Two of those jobs were as the weekend announcer at radio stations WGHN in Grand Haven and the former WTRU in Muskegon, so never once as a WMU student did Lorenz spend a weekend in Kalamazoo. He also had a weekday radio show on campus. His fourth job was as an aide in the university’s communications department, where he found many inspiring mentors.

In two years, Lorenz completed all the communications courses required for his degree. He attended WMU three years, but by then his student loans had climbed to $10,000, which felt like a heavy burden.

When WGHN offered him a position with an annual salary of $10,000, Lorenz says he believed he could not afford to pass on the opportunity. He turned a deaf ear to objections from professors who encouraged him to complete his senior year and graduate. 

Lorenz acknowledges that leaving the university without having earned a bachelor’s degree was a mistake then, and quickly adds that it would be an even bigger mistake now.

“It’s not fair, but now professionals don’t even want to talk to people without a degree,” Lorenz says, noting that a four-year college education has become a baseline for career-track jobs. “Besides, no one wants to work as hard as I did to get where I am today.”

The affable Lorenz and his neighborly voice eventually settled in with a long stint as station manager of WKBZ in Muskegon.

Lorenz says his favorite aspect of radio was providing a public service. His desire to inform, enhance and promote communities also shows in his high-profile volunteer efforts: helping to plan and operate large festivals that attract visitors from throughout Michigan and the Great Lakes Region.

In 1980, Lorenz was tapped to become a board member of the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, an award-winning festival that celebrates the history and accomplishments of the U.S. Coast Guard on Lake Michigan.

Later, he used what he learned in that endeavor and became a founding member of the Muskegon Summer Celebration, which brought mainstage entertainment along with family-friendly activities, a parade, and fireworks to Heritage Landing every July. The popular festival was canceled in 2011 because some major sponsors had to withdraw, leaving financial losses.

Lorenz eventually left WKBZ for a position in marketing and promotions at Meijer. It was a job he says he thought he’d never leave — until he met George Zimmermann, then vice president of Travel Michigan. Zimmermann had come into Meijer’s Grand Rapids offices to ask the company to fund a project.

“George and I clicked immediately,” Lorenz says. “Eventually, he mentioned to me that Travel Michigan was looking for someone with my eclectic skill set. I mentioned this to a friend who was working at WJR in Detroit. He found the actual job description and sent it to me, saying, ‘Dave, you are meant for this job.’”

So, nine years to the day after Meijer hired him, Lorenz left to become a travel and tourism executive. True to his robust work ethic, Lorenz worked until noon his final day at Meijer, then transitioned to tourism that very afternoon by escorting a friend visiting from Boston to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

After a dozen years as managing director of Travel Michigan, Lorenz ascended to the office’s top post eight years ago.

Pure Michigan

There have been two especially challenging times at Travel Michigan during Lorenz’s tenure. 

The first, he says, was about 14 years ago, when they let go of the tired “Great Lakes, Great Times” slogan in favor of creating — with guidance from the McCann advertising agency in Detroit — the “Pure Michigan” brand. 

“Not only was Michigan’s economy in recession, people were losing faith, believing that maybe our best times were behind us,” Lorenz says. “Sure, we wanted to encourage travel in Michigan. But the essence of our goal was to inspire the people of Michigan to work together and to continue moving forward.”

Pure Michigan endeavors to coax an emotional response for Michigan’s chief attributes: 
  • Abundant natural beauty
  • Unique experiences
  • Authentic destinations
  • Friendly people
“If people have pride in something, they’re going to support it,” Lorenz says. “It really is that simple.”

The creative team wanted Pure Michigan to have a celebrity spokesman who was closely associated with the state. Several celebs were considered, including legends of the Motown record label and athletic superstars, Lorenz says. Ultimately, the group settled on Detroit-born comedian and actor Tim Allen, who still lives in Michigan whenever he’s not filming.

Vice president of Travel Michigan Dave Lorenz and voice of Pure Michigan Tim Allen.
Allen, of course, is best known as the voice of Buzz Lightyear from the “Toy Story” franchise, Mike from the TV comedy “Last Man Standing,” and Tim “The Toolman” Taylor from the long-running TV comedy “Home Improvement.” Allen says in a 2018 interview that he’s most proud of his voiceover work for Pure Michigan because it’s different from everything else he’s done and pushed him to develop new skills.

Allen’s intimate narration of provided scripts — with Rachel Portman’s Academy Award-nominated score from the 1999 film “The Cider House Rules” wafting in the background — speaks to the heart. They have the magic to cause one to wax nostalgic for times not yet experienced. Lorenz regularly hears from Michigan ex-pats who report that a Pure Michigan ad left them feeling so homesick that they scheduled a trip home.

Pure Michigan has been around for a while, but the brand’s value continues to grow, Lorenz says. Methods people use to plan vacations have changed since the campaign started in 2008, but what they hope to experience remains pretty much the same. Lorenz believes Pure Michigan’s basic themes will remain effective for the foreseeable future. 

Pure Michigan segments have also inspired parodies dubbed “Not-So-Pure Michigan.” Their popularity on social media does not annoy Lorenz in the least. Travel Michigan staff loves a good laugh, too, he says.

Pandemic threatens travel industry worldwide

The second and most formidable challenge to tourism is the COVID-19 pandemic and public safety orders that people stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Anticipated announcements of cruise lines offering new routes on the Great Lakes have been mothballed — at least for a couple of years. 

Even now that the harshest restrictions have been lifted, social media posts about car trip destinations in Michigan are packaged with disclaimers that say, essentially, remember this great place for when it’s safe to travel again. 

“Thousands of people have lost jobs in the industry, and the impact of that cannot be overstated,” Lorenz says. 

The state reallocated most of Travel Michigan’s 2020 budget. Lorenz found himself in the unlikely position of encouraging residents to be good to each other and get vaccinated so normal activities can resume. 

As of mid-November, 55 percent of Michigan adults are fully vaccinated against the virus. The memory of travel restrictions is fast fading, although wearing a mask at indoor venues is still widely recommended. To be sure, there are signs that Michiganders are eager to travel again. As early as mid-summer 2021, competition for tee times on some Northern Michigan golf courses was intense, Lorenz says.
The pandemic has forced changes in the way Lorenz does his job.

“I never thought I’d be giving media interviews by strategically placing my laptop on the hood of my car,” he says. “It works. But sitting down with a reporter in a studio is what I prefer.”

Approaching the end of his run

As Lorenz nears retirement age, he says he tries to compress his 10-year vision for developing Travel Michigan into fewer years.

His bucket list includes raising awareness and adding infrastructure to make Michigan the most accessible state in the nation for tourists with disabilities. Travel Michigan is also working with local destination marketing organizations (DMOs) to develop a co-op internship program with the goal of infusing the travel industry with greater diversity. 

Lorenz believes these programs will help Pure Michigan achieve its ultimate goal of welcoming all to “a place that accepts all people as they are, no matter their race, religion, sex or age.” He says that’s because travel corrects misperceptions, enlightens people to new ideas, and kindles a sense of exploration.

As the public’s preferences for obtaining information evolve, Pure Michigan’s challenge is to tell its story in new ways and through new media, Lorenz says.

In his personal time, Lorenz is an avid runner, a sport he took up in his mid-30s. His participation in Saturday runs in Grand Haven with a group of friends who call themselves “The Old Guys” was interrupted in recent years by a rare form of thyroid cancer, which prompted two surgeries. At the insistence of “The Old Guys,” the condition was, fortunately, detected and treated early.

“It’s nothing I worry about,” Lorenz says. “I’ve run 13 marathons, and I hope that I haven’t run my last.”

Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.