MICHIGAN: The Howard Johnson franchise on 28th Street in Grand Rapids has seen occupancy soar since owner Bob Sullivan made a seemingly unfashionable business decision: accommodate smokers.
And not just the tobacco variety. Sullivan caters to marijuana smokers, as well.
Twenty rooms already have been renovated to accommodate smokers. And by the time Sullivan’s done, 60-80 of the hotel’s 155 rooms will allow smoking — accommodating medical marijuana patients as well as tobacco smokers.
Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008, and Grand Rapids decriminalized marijuana last year — making possession of a small amount a civil infraction, similar to a parking ticket.
Occupancy at the Howard Johnson “has seen an increase every weekend,” Sullivan said. “Every weekend, every one of those rooms is sold.”
Sullivan, who himself does not smoke cigarettes or marijuana even for medicinal use, estimates occupancy is up 50 percent since he started renovating the rooms.
Renovations have included opening each room up with sliding doors and installing a patio with a tall fence around it to provide privacy — “a little smoking area for each room right at the door,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise, people have to go outside the lobby doors.
“If you’re a marijuana smoker, it’s nice to have that privacy, wouldn’t you say so?”
Smoke-free law doesn’t apply to patios
Under the state’s Smoke-Free Air Law, which went into effect in May 2010, tobacco smoking is prohibited inside places where people work, including hotels, bars, and restaurants. But the law doesn’t apply to smoking outside — hence the outdoor patios.
The law also doesn’t mention cannabis smoke.
“The tobacco-free act does not ban any other substance other than tobacco,” said Steve Yencich, president and CEO of the Michigan Lodging & Tourism Association. “It’s an interesting quandary. It’s an interpretation of the statute that probably raises more questions than answers.”
Sullivan doesn’t aggressively market his smoking accommodations. Still, The Grand Rapids Press ran an article about the hotel’s renovations, and Sullivan has a large sign in front of the Howard Johnson’s welcoming smokers.
And although nowhere does he advertise that marijuana smoking is permitted, Sullivan speaks candidly about it, word on the street is out, and a medical marijuana group meets regularly at the hotel, he said.
Howard Johnson’s doesn’t seem to mind Sullivan’s approach to filling rooms.
“As a franchise organization, each hotel within our brand’s portfolio is independently owned and operated and required to comply with all local, state and federal laws” was what Rob Myers, public relations manager of Wyndham Hotel Group, had to say. Wyndham is Howard Johnson’s parent company.
While no hard numbers exist on the growth of hotels catering to marijuana smokers in particular, Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said “marijuana-related tourism is the fastest-growing sector of the marijuana industry.”
Said Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for the Experience Grand Rapids tourism bureau: “We market all hotels in Kent County, and we let consumers choose where they stay. Our focus is on promoting the destination, not individual hotel amenities.”
Aldworth also pointed out that 30 states still have not legalized medical marijuana. This makes states with both medical marijuana laws and a flourishing health care industry — such as Grand Rapids’ — destinations for ill people to legally explore medical marijuana.