Traveling the Badger State

Lodging, airline and luggage options abound for travelers to, from or around Wisconsin.

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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.”

Green Lake

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.”

Cabin Rentals

If a vacation rental—cabin, cottage or home—is your style, 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 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.”

-Judy Dahl

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