Tours on a Tank-Full

Things are looking up in the tourism and convention industries, but between the slowly recovering economy and high gas prices, people are traveling shorter distances and booking later.

There’s a pent-up demand for travel. “Bookings are ahead of last year’s pace, which is a really good sign,” observes Kathleen Eickhoff, Elkhart Lake director of tourism. “Even with high gas prices, people still want vacations, so they’re looking for destinations closer to home that have a lot to offer.”

The recession affected Elkhart Lake’s meeting and convention business more than its leisure tourism market, and visitors’ stays are still shorter than pre-downturn—more long weekends than weeklong meetings or vacations. But its accessibility from Milwaukee and Chicago, particularly, has drawn travelers looking for nearby venues. “In 2008 we were able to introduce our destination to a lot of new customers, and we have a very strong return-customer ratio,” Eickhoff says.”

She credits the region’s diverse offerings. “We have three lakeside resorts that accommodate business groups and leisure travelers—the Osthoff, Siebkens and Victorian Village—each with a distinctive character and amenities, and all with beautiful beaches.”

There are also excellent restaurants, music, theater, golf and more. And don’t forget Road America, the internationally known motorsports complex. But the crystal-clear, spring-fed lake is the main attraction.

“Elkhart Lake is a wonderful family destination that offers an appealing, wind-down mode,” says Eickhoff. “You can park your car and walk to everything. We have the natural beauty along with the quality lodging, dining and entertainment you’d find in a big city.”

Million-Dollar Summer

Missy Tracy, public relations senior manager at Ho-Chunk Gaming – Wisconsin Dells, says higher gas prices have actually helped her organization, attracting Midwesterners who might otherwise travel farther “Most of our customers are local or from within a four- to six-hour travel radius.”

Business held relatively strong through the recession. “It helps that we’re centrally located in the state, and even though Dells-area
businesses compete for tourist dollars, during times of adversity we pull together,” says Tracy. Things are even better now. “As the economic recovery generates jobs and increases discretionary income, people are coming here and spending more,” says Tracy.
Based on feedback from customers—a sizable segment of whom are retirees—Ho-Chunk is developing an onsite RV park. “It’ll cater to the ‘class A’ RVs, the really big, luxurious ones,” says Tracy.

The hotel is also undergoing an extensive rejuvenation and going for five-star classification. “We’re upgrading, and reducing our room count to make rooms larger,” Tracy says. “We’re adding a VIP wing with its own lounge.”

Right now Ho-Chunk Gaming is running its “Wisconsin Million Dollar Summer Promotion” at all five sites. “We have ‘hot seat drawings’ every week for cash or prizes—and every few weeks we give away a big prize, like a car,” says Tracy. “Winners are entered into a drawing for the really big prize at the end of the summer.”

All told, Ho-Chunk is giving away a million dollars. “We’re spreading it throughout the summer so as many guests as possible can participate,” Tracy says.

A Search For Value

Ted BallwegWhen it comes to meetings and events, especially in the last two years, attendees are choosing carefully. “If they’re in the horse industry, they’ll still go to the Midwest Horse Fair, but they may not attend all three days,” says Ted Ballweg, assistant center manager at Alliant Energy Center.

“On the business side, event planners are waiting longer to make decisions,” he adds. “Major conventions used to be booked two or three years out; now we’re seeing some booked less than a year ahead.”

It’s partly because there are more venues available and partly a search for value. “People are more willing to change and look at other venue options,” Ballweg says.

“It puts us in the mix more often—meeting planners still see the Midwest as a great value,” he says. “Recently I got inquiries from Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.”

To extend the best value to attendees, business-event planners are doing research and surveys to determine the hot topics in an industry. “Then they do extensive communications to show potential participants the return on their investments and time,” says Ballweg.
Events aimed at consumers are a bit different. “There’s still value in the equation—if I love motorcycles I’m going to research online to make sure the one or two events I attend give the best value,” Ballweg explains.

Gas prices are a factor as well. “People may not drive to Disney World, but if they can get there on a tank of gas, it’s doable,” says Ballweg. “They’ll still do ‘tours on a tank-full.’”

Downtown Getaways

The hospitality industry took as hard a hit as any from the economic downturn. “People had put off business travel and vacations, but it’s recovering pretty quickly,” says Stephen Zanoni, general manager of the Madison Concourse Hotel.

High gas prices haven’t had much effect yet, but they’re a concern for summer travel, he believes. “Fortunately, Wisconsin and Madison are positioned really well,” he notes. “We’re very accessible for people who don’t want to drive too far.”

Madison-area residents wanting a night away sometimes stay at the Concourse. “They might use our Governor’s Club and spend the night downtown, and do things that don’t cost a lot of money—like Concerts on the Square, the Dane County Farmers’ Market or walking or biking by the lakes,” Zanoni says.

Located on the top three floors of the hotel, the Governor’s Club is a popular destination for corporate travelers and couples’ getaways. “We completed a $3 million renovation a few years ago and the rooms are beautiful,” says Zanoni. “In the evening there are complimentary hors d’oeuvres and cocktails; in the morning there’s breakfast—both in a private lounge overlooking the Capitol.”

The hotel has an award-winning chef, and its Dayton Street Grille serves local foods when possible. Guests can also enjoy microbrews, fine wines or specialty cocktails in the hotel bar. “There are so many great events downtown,” Zanoni says, “and we really enjoy helping our guests connect with them.”

Something a Little Different

A new destination, HotelRED, joins the Madison market this summer. New owner Red Hospitality has selected Inn Development and Management Group (IDM) to manage the property. “It’s a new beginning for the project,” asserts Connie Barbian, a partner with IDM Group. “We have support from city alders and we spent a lot of time working with the neighborhood.”

She’s pleased that construction at Monroe and Regent streets will complete around the time the hotel opens. “It’s helpful that the economy is improving at the same time,” she says.

Business at other hotels IDM manages is improving, too. “We’ve maintained much of our business—we had really built up customer loyalty—but we had to work very hard to do so,” says Barbian. “We had seen shorter stays—guests would stay one night instead of two on a weekend—but that’s starting to change.”

She anticipates a brisk business at HotelRED, which will offer something a little different for Madison. “It’s truly a boutique hotel that incorporates the best Madison has to offer in its food, the stories the spacious, luxurious rooms reflect about local business, sports, education and art … the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby facing Camp Randall Stadium, the lobby-level bar and restaurant….”

State Tourism Promotion

Barbian is excited about the tourism-promotion funds Gov. Scott Walker has included in his budget. “It’ll really help us compete with surrounding states, especially Michigan, which has a very large tourism budget.”

Zanoni says the governor’s tourism initiative is terrific. “It’ll help us let people know what a great destination Wisconsin is—there’s so much to do and it’s easy to get here.”

Eikhoff is pleased that Gov. Walker recognizes tourism as one of the three major industries in the state, along with agriculture and manufacturing, that has the potential to pull Wisconsin into an improved economic state. “For every dollar spent on advertising tourism, we attract $7 in state and local taxes and incremental spending,” she says.

READ MORE: Cultural Attractions Are An Economic Engine

— Judy Dahl

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