Traveling the Badger State
Lodging, airline and luggage options abound for travelers to, from or around Wisconsin.
“Shopping for luggage and accessories is like being in a candy store if you like traveling,” says Ray Krut, owner of Landmark Luggage. His stores carry the latest innovative products designed to address two travel macro-trends: increased TSA/security requirements and fees for heavy luggage.
Landmark Luggage has five stores, one of which opened in Madison’s West Towne Mall in November 2011. One is in Mequon and the others are in different states. The majority of the stores’ business is from luggage sales, but they also carry an array of leather goods, like briefcases, including rolling business cases. They have small goods like wallets, travel handbags and travel kits, and a large selection of travel accessories to make your next trip safer and smoother.
New in luggage, the old two-wheeled suitcases you drag behind are being replaced by “spinners,” four-wheeled bags you draw alongside you. They’re lightweight—made of polycarbonate, a strong, resilient plastic that regains its shape if dented. “The industry calls it hard-sided, but it’s not like the old suitcases your parents used,” Krut explains.
Security-related accessories include TSA-approved combination locks. “You lock your luggage, and TSA agents have a master key to unlock and relock it,” says Krut. “For liquids there are TSA-compliant GoToobs, which are very light and hold two ounces. They’re a big hit.”
You can buy travel clothing that protects you from the sun and has built-in insect repellant, which lasts 100 washings. It also stays fresh, because it stops bacteria from building up, and dries in about an hour after washing. Landmark Luggage carries the Ex Officio line, which specializes in light, protective, easy-care travel clothing.
Krut offers free travel seminars as well. “They last a couple of hours. We hold them every other month now and hopefully every month next year,” he says. “People request we come to their locations, like a school with a group traveling to Europe. We cover topics like how to pack more efficiently, understanding TSA rules, international travel rules or how to stay safe while traveling.
“We’re travel experts, and we want to help people make the right decisions for their needs,” Krut continues. “Our full business name is, ‘Landmark Luggage – Your Travel Store.’ We want people to come in and get a sense of adventure, to escape into the world of travel. We know our products and the industry, and whether you’re looking for a business briefcase or a leisure backpack, we’ll help you find the perfect fit.”
Many travelers are dropping their luggage off curbside at Chicago International Rockford Airport, where travel was up 14 percent last year over the previous year, and is up 13 percent so far this year from last year.
The airport’s niche is leisure travel. “We’re a hassle-free, low-cost, vacation-travel airport,” says director Mike Dunn. “Rockford is very easy to get to; highways 90, 39 and 20 all intersect here. It’s four-lane roads practically to our front door. And it’s a great benefit being so close to Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.”
Four air-service providers fly out of Rockford to nine vacation destinations and Dunn is currently in negotiations to add more, including European destinations. Allegiant has flown from Rockford for seven years, and Apple Vacations puts together many of its travel packages. Frontier flies to Denver and Direct Air to two Florida cities.
“Most travelers to Denver come from close by, since you can also get there nonstop from other airports, but many people going to Cancun or Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, come from surrounding states,” Dunn explains. “We say: ‘If you’re going where we go you can’t beat Rockford.’”
He and his staff do everything they can to make traveling easy and relaxing. “We offer free parking, you can drop your bags curbside for free, there’s a free shuttle from our parking lot, and free WiFi in the terminal,” he says. “The TSA experience is very quick and everyone, from the security people to the rental car agents, is very friendly.”
Business travel isn’t Rockford’s focus. “We don’t attempt to compete with airports like O’Hare on business travel,” says Dunn. “Business travelers need to go where there are frequent flights, so if they miss one, they can get another.”
With about 45 departing flights a day, Dane County Regional Airport does focus on business as well as leisure travel. And both have increased in recent years, business more than vacation travel.
“Business travel had decreased because of the economy and gas and fuel prices, but we’re seeing a rebound,” notes Brent McHenry, director of marketing and communications. “Businesspeople are looking for quick, easy, convenient travel, and they’re not as concerned about ticket prices. They’re trying to be very savvy, and go and come back on the same day or in the same week. They want nearby airports so they can get home and see their families rather than driving to Chicago for a little better price.”
Leisure travelers are typically looking for lower fares along with convenient connections. “Vacation travel is improving slowly across the board,” McHenry says. “We’re seeing more travel to key destinations, like Orlando or Mexico in winter. People aren’t taking as many trips, but families often take one or two big trips a year.”
All travelers are using technology to make travel easier. “There’s been a huge increase, especially among business travelers,” says McHenry. “There’s an app for everything, and every business traveler uses at least one.”
Apps can help manage frequent flyer miles, get hotel upgrades or check in for flights electronically with a QR code. “As a plane pulls up to the gate, people might already be reserving rental cars,” McHenry says. “With in-flight internet access, they can work continually and stay caught up on emails. It makes it easier to be out of the office for trips.”
Vacationers use technology to find affordable fares. “Sites like Travelocity can send alerts for fare price decreases on trips they’re tracking,” says McHenry. “People may be taking fewer trips now, but technology makes it easier to find the best deals.”
McHenry notes Dane County is one of few airports in the nation, except the largest ones, that’s adding flights and capacity. “We have 12 nonstop destinations, which is unusual in a market our size. You can go to some pretty major places without a stop—New York City, Washington, D.C., Orlando—and you can go anywhere in the world with one connection, which very few Midwest airports offer.”
People are learning the hassle to drive to Chicago doesn’t save them that much. “They may have to stay overnight and airport parking is $50 a day,” says McHenry. “And Dane County’s ticket prices will tend to come down the more people support our airport.
“What really sets us apart is that we’re easy and efficient, with quick connections and no faraway parking or long security lines,” he continues. “We’re a small, beautiful, relaxing airport, and leisure travelers especially are looking for this.”
Urban Boutique Hotels
Wisconsin travelers have myriad lodging options, from hotels to resorts to cabins, from urban destinations to the Northwoods. The Dahlmann Campus Inn on Langdon Street in Madison is just steps away from the UW. “You don’t need a car if you’re coming downtown,” says Bill Wellman, general manager. “We do have complimentary parking, but also complimentary taxi transportation to and from the airport.”
Some people think you can only stay at the hotel if you’re involved with the UW. “It’s not so,” assures Wellman. “Our name refers to our location, which is a huge advantage for our guests.”
About half of those guests are coming to Madison businesses for conferences or meetings, or to campus for academic reasons, conferences or adult learning. The other half is leisure travelers.
“Often people don’t know what to expect from us, but we give them something to write home about,” Wellman says. “We’re a beautifully appointed facility with mahogany, marble, original artwork and first-class furnishings in our rooms. People experience it and want to come back.”
The guests-only Chancellor’s Club offers complimentary hot breakfast and serves as a lounge with an extensive wine list and top-shelf liquor. It can host small meetings, as can the Inn’s suites. One overlooks the UW, Lake Mendota and the Capitol. “People use it for very creative brainstorming sessions or as a hospitality suite,” says Wellman. “We partner with larger facilities that hold larger meetings for groups of guests.
“Travelers like this style of independent, upscale hotel,” he adds. “We provide a little more personal attention, such as a staffed business center.”
HotelRED, across from UW–Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium, has been open less than a year. So far it’s seeing roughly 60 percent business travelers and 40 percent leisure travelers. “We’ve been ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor, where people search for lodging, for about five months now,” enthuses Heather Stetzer, director of sales. “For a new hotel, that’s pretty awesome.”
Madison’s business travel market is competitive, she indicates, but HotelRED is unique. “We have a total of 2,200 square feet of meeting space, with three rooms, two of which can open into one. One can open into our lobby and lounge area—with its natural lighting—for receptions or networking. It’s very popular. Our Capital Room has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Camp Randall. It’s the perfect size for a board meeting of 15–20 people.
“Seasoned travelers see a lot of properties and appreciate our independent, boutique hotel,” Stetzer adds. “Companies that want to showcase Madison book their top VIPs with us.”
The hotel hires staff who know Madison well and can inform guests, notes Jason Ilstrup, general manager. “When guests make the decision to stay somewhere unique, our personal service supports their choice. We try to buy local in every area we can—furniture, bar fixtures, food and beverages, flowers … we really support our local area and want to be ‘the Madison Hotel.’”
On weekends, many of the hotel’s leisure guests come to visit their children at the UW, or to enjoy Madison and the lakes, or to events like a Badger game or the Madison Marathon. “There’s also the ‘staycation’ concept, where people stay nearer their homes for vacation,” Ilstrup says.
“People come from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis or Madison itself. Even if you live in Nakoma you can come for a great stay downtown,” he adds. “We really want to be part of the neighborhood and buy from local merchants as much as possible so guests from far and near can have that Madison experience.”
He’s worked in other hotels and finds all travelers are being more frugal. “They want good value, and that’s why we offer free WiFi, complimentary shuttle service, chocolates in the rooms and a complimentary cocktail on weekends.”
Closest to the Kohl Center
Tom Ziarnek, general manager of the DoubleTree Hilton on West Johnson Street, has seen corporate travel—strong until a 2009 decreas —pick up recently. “Now it’s better than ever,” he says. “The only issue is that people book later. Before, they might book two weeks or a month ahead; now it’s more like five days. It’s been a real learning curve for us with staffing.”
In his 19 years at the hotel, the biggest change Ziarnek has seen is its conversion seven years ago from a Howard Johnson. “It was a huge undertaking with fantastic results,” he recalls. “We had a $4 million renovation and eight months of training staff to new standards, policies and computer systems. All staff had to pass a test before we could open.”
Now the hotel sees about 70 percent business travelers, roughly 3 percent, of which is convention business, and about 30 percent leisure travelers. “We’re the closest hotel to the Kohl Center, so we get a lot of business from Badger sports,” reports Ziarnek.
“But we’re known mostly for our service. We have the Hilton Honors frequent traveler program, which ties into the services we provide hotel guests,” he says. “It makes us a leader. We’re ranked No. 3 out of 280 DoubleTrees, and we’ve been in the top five since we converted, based on guest rankings.”
People rate their treatment by staff very highly. “We’re not the largest hotel, but we treat everyone sincerely and empower staff to make decisions,” Ziarnek says. “If a guest requests something, employees don’t have to find a manager.”
Employees from the restaurant to the bell staff and in between know all regular guests by their first names. “We work hard to train employees to do that,” says Ziarnek. “It’s the little things that set us apart.”
As travelers look for more value, Ho Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells is also doing little things to set itself apart. These include a mother’s room for nursing and a complimentary charging station for electronic devices.
“If you forget you charger, you can just drop your phone at the coat-check counter and pick it up later,” says Nehoma Thundercloud, public relations senior manager. “We’re adding small amenities that really mean something for guests. We’ve always found space for nursing mothers, but we wanted to have a nicer, more relaxing environment.”
Ho Chunk allows smoking on its main gaming floor and has expanded the nonsmoking gaming floor. “It’s on other side of casino from the hotel and convention center, and we have shuttles to take people to the nonsmoking entrance and back, so they don’t have to walk through the smoking area,” Thundercloud says. “We’re always looking for ways to make things more convenient.”
The resort has also undergone major changes like the recent hotel renovation, which upgraded and enlarged rooms, added luxury and premier ones, and created hospitality and honeymoon suites, along with a VIP wing and private lounge. And its deluxe RV park opened last fall.
Business and convention travel is strong and getting stronger, and more people are bringing their families and combining business and leisure trips. “We have something for everyone—children can have fun at Kids Quest while those over 18 play bingo and the adults enjoy full-service gaming,” says Thundercloud.
“We have a new leisure pool area with a huge hot tub lagoon, four restaurants from casual to fine dining, concerts and live entertainment, and our location in the center of the state is a real advantage,” she adds. “You drive an hour or two and you’re here; it’s a nice day trip. For example, we recently hosted a one-day American Red Cross volunteer celebration.”
The grand ballroom, seating 1,200, is the showpiece of Ho Chunk’s meeting and convention space. There’s also a more intimate ballroom and boardrooms for breakout sessions. The exhibit space can accommodate up to 100 tradeshow booths.
“Businesses appreciate the variety of food and beverages we offer for breakfasts and breakouts, and our responsive staff. “They resolve any issues promptly and make sure all needs are taken care of,” Thundercloud notes. “We have complimentary valet service and concierges—nice amenities you don’t get at most venues.”
Weddings, from the elaborate and large to the simple and intimate, are frequent at Ho Chunk. “People tell us they get a great turnout when guests find out the wedding is here,” laughs Thundercloud. “Our banquet staff does a great job with the kids’ table menus as well as the adult menus.”
For a more rural stay, business and leisure travelers alike flock to the Wisconsin Northwoods, with the Minocqua region a popular destination. “Field & Stream magazine designated our area as one of the top five fishing destinations in the U.S.,” says Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua–Arbor Vitae–Woodruff Area Chamber of Commerce. “It makes us proud because of the efforts we make to keep our lakes pristine.”
She describes a small-town atmosphere with many year-round residents who care deeply for the area. “Along with clean lakes, we keep the towns clean, with beautiful flowers. We want to provide an inviting atmosphere. People first come when invited and return when they’re treated well.”
The area has the state’s largest concentration of fresh water for swimming, boating and fishing, and an extensive, continuous trail system recognized statewide. “People come from all over to hike and bike,” Baltus says.
Area hotels and resorts host small- to medium-sized business meetings. “We don’t have a large conference center that can fit hundreds, but we get a lot of groups of 12–20 that come for things like retreats,” notes Baltus. “The chamber has had a group-travel representative for about five years, who targets groups from about 6–50. You have to develop a lot of relationships to build that business, and it’s really beginning to pay off.”
Still, a survey of a five-county area revealed people primarily come to the Northwoods to relax and have fun. “The underlying theme is, they come to get away from their day-to-day routines, shop, have good food and spend time on the water,” Baltus says.
“People’s vacations and time spent up north is so important to them, they’re willing to make a sacrifice or two to get here,” she adds. “They may only eat out once a day, but everyone needs time to get away and refresh. The Northwoods is a great destination.”
And The Beacons of Minocqua is a premier area resort. “At least 75 percent of our guests are returning,” says Mary Martin, co-director. “We have all the amenities of your home, and we’re family oriented, very comfortable, and close to town but in the woods—it’s a gorgeous area and resort.”
It’s a larger resort on the chain of lakes, with an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna and game room. It boasts 81 units, including condominiums, log cabins and hotel rooms. There are 32 time-share units
“If you want to be active, there’s a lot to do at The Beacons and in the area. Or you can just sit by the fire,” says Carol Schauer, a marketing consultant who counts both the resort and the chamber of commerce among her clients.
“The Beacons is really a special place. The units are so clean and well maintained, and there are so many different options and price ranges,” Schauer adds. “There are children’s activities in summer—fishing lessons, a nightly bonfire—and lots of weddings and family reunions. Some families have been coming here for 15 years.”
Business is brisk—and almost entirely leisure travel—but Martin has seen people make shorter, more frequent trips and add additional days at the last minute. “They’re probably watching their finances a little more closely,” she says. “We used to rent by the week until about May, but this year we’ve broken it up and allowed short stays all year.”
The Green Lake area also offers natural beauty and much more. “The lake is the biggest draw,” says Loni Meiborg, executive director of the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the state’s deepest inland lake, with almost 30 miles of shoreline. It’s 237 feet deep, seven miles long and 2.5 miles wide. It’s clear and clean, with natural sandbars.”
The town has a classic small downtown. “It’s on the lake, quaint and very walkable,” Meiborg says. “There’s shopping and dining—from high-end to pub or café styles.
“We have a great farmers’ market and a community kitchen where people produce locally grown foods for sale,” she continues. “And our Town Square opens in July, focusing on arts and education, with classes like pottery, jewelry making and glass blowing. There’s also a new organic market opening, the Homegrown Market & Café.”
Lodging options provide something for every style. “Heidel House Resort, with 200 rooms, dates back to the early 1900s,” Meiborg notes. “It’s become a very plush resort, with a spa, three restaurants and a full range of amenities, including indoor and outdoor pools. It’s the highest-end and largest place in the area and it’s right on the lake.”
Green Lake also has a full range of hotels and motels, bed and breakfasts, and rental homes or cabins. “We also have two great campgrounds, one on the lake, one a mile down the road,” says Meiborg. “The larger, Green Lake Campground, has tons of amenities.”
The area is a popular convention venue. “Heidel House has a ballroom and smaller breakout rooms,” Meiborg says. “And its Escapade yacht can host up to 60 people for dinner or cocktail cruises.”
There’s also Green Lake Conference Center a mile or so from town. The former 1,000-acre hobby farm dates to the late 1800s and can host up to 1,000. “There’s a ropes course, hiking, biking, crafts for the kids—so much to do,” says Meiborg.
“People have been staying closer to home since 2001, and we’re less than 90 minutes from Madison,” Meiborg says. “Travelers like the fact that they can get here on less than a tank of gas. Companies are starting to spend again after the recession, and we’re definitely getting more inquiries for events like conferences, sales retreats and customer appreciation lunches.”
Heidel House Resort & Spa has had about a 17 percent uptick in both business and leisure sales this year over last, and 2011 sales topped 2010 levels. “We have roughly 55 percent group travelers—booking 10 rooms or more—and 45 percent leisure travelers,” says Scott Krause, general manager.
The resort is seeing more group bookings but smaller groups. “They used to average 50 rooms a night, and now maybe it’s 25,” Krause says. “We get a lot of people from Madison or Milwaukee for weekends—it’s a short drive.”
Like other properties, Heidel House has seen its guests book with shorter notice in recent years. “Five or more years ago they’d book months in advance, then it became weeks, or even the same week,” says Krause. “Now they’re booking a little further out, at least 30 days.”
Heidel House strives to create an experience for guests. “Our ballroom overlooks Green Lake, and can host 350 for a sit-down dinner or 600 for cocktails. And we have an outside tent where we do a lot of weddings in summer,” Krause says.
Green Lake has become a popular eco-tourism destination, with great venues for kayaking, hiking and especially biking. “The lake continues to be the main attraction for our guests, but we continue to see an increase in guests bringing their bikes with them,” notes Krause. “We rent bikes and also provide trail maps in print and on our website.”
The resort’s Evensong Spa opened seven years ago, and is a big draw year-round. “People see it as an escape, no matter the time of year,” Krause says. “In winter when it’s cold and gloomy, people love to be pampered. In summer they enjoy the indoor and outdoor seating. After their services, they’re often so relaxed they fall asleep in our relaxation room.”
If a vacation rental—cabin, cottage or home—is your style, RentWisconsinCabins.com can help you find the perfect place. Joe Mogensen, founder and owner, started the company in 2009 as a second business. His primary job is still with the marketing firm he founded in 1996, JM Creative LLC, but RentWisconsinCabins.com is growing rapidly.
“I wanted to start an online business, so I thought, what am I passionate about and is there room on the internet for it?” he muses. Having spent years working at his parents’ small resort in northern Wisconsin, Mogensen immediately thought about Wisconsin vacation rentals.
“I spent about six months doing keyword studies and other research, and it seemed there was a spot for a Wisconsin vacation rental site,” he says. “It’s a niche, but Google likes that—you can rank very high for an industry if you’re knowledgeable about search engine optimization.”
By mid-2010 his site had processed 600 rentals and earlier this year surpassed a million pageviews. Mogensen is considering launching similar sites for other states.
Rental owners and managers pay an annual fee to list their properties, based on the number of units they have to rent. “There are nationwide listing sites that claim lots of page views, but how many people are looking for Wisconsin rentals?” Mogensen asks. “We give property owners a lot more regional exposure that leads to more bookings—if we had too tight a niche, like Eagle River cabins only, we wouldn’t get as much traffic. It’s finding that high-traffic range while maintaining your niche.”
Getting the word out
To attract property listings, Mogensen gathers a list of vacation rentals through internet searches and emails the owners to tell them how his site can introduce their vacation properties to 50,000 area travelers a year. “It’s very low pressure,” he says. “There’s no cold calling; we encourage them to contact existing members and ask about their experiences.”
Last year Mogensen introduced a “narrow your search” tool. “In addition to searching on the interactive map, vacationers can enter criteria and travel dates, and instantly, with one click, see a list of qualifying properties. Then they select one or more properties and submit inquiries.”
He’s redesigning his website and this tool will play a vital role. He’s also hired a high school student to coordinate the site’s social media efforts.
HotelRED appreciates social media as well. “It’s brilliant for a hotel like ours,” says Ilstrup. “We don’t have the budget or marketing capabilities of a Hilton. We try to create a lot of engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and we also ask people to rate us on TripAdvisor.”
Heidel House has a fulltime employee managing social media. “We have three e-newsletters: one for the resort, one for the spa and one to business groups,” says Krause. “We try to give useful information rather than just promoting ourselves. If all you do is sell, people will opt out. We also use YouTube, blogs and sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia.”
The Minocqua Chamber also has an employee dedicated to social media. “On Facebook and other media it’s important to have that personality,” says Baltus. “We held a contest last year to win an iPad II, and we got responses from 48 states. We have about 5,000 fans on Facebook, a great website where we get about 20,000 hits a month, and people can look at the town, the lake and the area on our three webcams. Since last November we’ve had about 30,000 hits. It’s another way for people to feel connected.”
All of the venues use social media to some extent. For instance, The DoubleTree Hilton is on Facebook and foursquare, and does daily tweets. “We have monthly Facebook specials, where people like us for an opportunity to win prizes—currently it’s a weekend stay with a $50 gas card,” says Ziarnek.
Chicago International Rockford Airport has a very good website and uses Facebook and Twitter frequently, along with traditional media. “We’re in Winnebago County, but our goal is to market to people in the corridor to Chicago and let them know we’re here,” says Dunn. “If they’re in Elgin or Aurora, we need them to understand they can be here in 35 or 40 minutes.”