• WisBusiness

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Operators see state efforts aiding summer tourism


By Jennifer Sereno
With an annual impact of some $13 billion per year, Wisconsin's tourism industry represents an important source of jobs and income for state residents.

In Wisconsin Dells and northern communities including Minocqua and Hayward, tourism and its ripple effects sustain families, support the local tax base and create opportunities for new generations of entrepreneurs.

On a national level, however, tourism industry forecasts for 2009 are not exactly glowing. The U.S. Travel Association predicts leisure travel this year will decline approximately 1.4 percent from 2008, which was itself a challenging year.

While traveler sentiment appears to be strengthening based on the association's most recent quarterly index, much of the improvement in attitude is attributable to the industry's aggressive promotion of discounted rates and fares. The association notes that some hotel companies, attractions and rental car companies have been featuring deals up to 50 percent off those quoted six months earlier.

So, what does all of this mean for Wisconsin tourism operators in the critical summer months ahead?

Several regional experts say despite the recent media flap over Wisconsin's new tourism slogan ("Live Like You Mean It"), efforts to promote the state are having a positive impact. While 2009 won't be an easy year, savvy tourism operators throughout Wisconsin are adapting to the changing demands of visitors and looking forward to the summer season with some optimism.

Kevin Ruetten, executive director of the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce, says the year started off on a high note in his region, with record participation in the American Birkebeiner ski race and its sister event, the Kortelopet. The Birkie and its related festivities drew 15,000 to 20,000 people to the region for a $4 million economic impact. Then, before the spring thaw, nationally sanctioned snowmobile events drew 12,000 to 14,000 people, including many national caliber snowcross competitors.

Events coming in the warmer months, including the governor's fishing opener in early May, the musky festival in June and the 50th anniversary of the Lumberjack World Championships in July, all have tourism operators upbeat.

In addition to these signature events, "we do have a lot of attractions up here that maybe don't cost as much as the attractions elsewhere," Ruetten says. "People can spend time and not as much money, so we're fairly optimistic. Some of the resorts aren't totally full yet, but the calls are still coming in."

Although the Hayward area continues to exude "small-town" friendliness, more establishments have invested in wi-fi capabilities and high-speed Internet access while pressing the phone companies to ensure better cell reception. Given that a missed message can mean lost business these days, such amenities have become increasingly important to working families.

In Vilas and Oneida counties, restaurants, resorts and attraction operators also are optimistic. With gas prices running more than a dollar below last year's levels, the owners of vacation homes in the area may opt for additional trips. Meanwhile, families within a day's driving range gain an incentive to book a resort closer to home instead of a flight to a more distant destination.

"Among the resorts, a big portion of them are very pleased with their bookings for this summer," says Dianna Lang, director of customer relations for the Minocqua-Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Area Chamber of Commerce. "There are some that are a little slow, but those are the ones that don't have bookings in the first part of June and last part of August. We have to keep in mind that many schools are still in session during the first part of June ... and then lots of schools start sports in early August."

Lang says North Woods tourism operators also recognize that changing family dynamics have upped the ante when it comes to offering activities everyone can enjoy. Gone are the days when mom and the kids were content to stay at the cabin playing board games while dad went fishing. Instead, many families are eager for options ranging from outdoor water sports and recreational trails to shopping, indoor pools and game rooms.

Of course, fishing in the area continues to be exceptional, and there's no better place to enjoy a game of cards or backgammon than on a cabin porch overlooking a northern lake, Lang notes.

Ruetten from the Hayward area and Diane Geis-Hapka, executive director of the Minocqua area chamber, both credit the state tourism department for drawing more visitors from targeted out-of-state markets. Although many Wisconsin residents never get to see the ads that play in these regional markets, Geis-Hapka believes they are effective.

"We do get calls and when we ask people where they found our number, a lot of times it's from the Wisconsin Web site," Ruetten says. "We've seen an increase in the number of visitors from Iowa and Missouri, although one of our major markets is the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. When the state launched the new (tourism) tagline, they also announced the launch of improvements to the (industry tool portion of the) site to make it easier to use. I've heard in the industry that a lot of people have liked the improvements."

-- Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail jenny.sereno@wcgpr.com or call (608) 770-8084.

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