Holiday Road

Wisconsin travel and tourism professionals share their tips and insights on how to get the most out of your summer vacation.

Your holiday plans are a big deal. They offer you needed rest and relaxation, and they generate a significant amount of revenue for the state. Last year, total tourism business sales reached $16.8 billion, up 4.7 percent over 2011. That’s not small change.

Before you reach for your wallet, spend some time thinking about your vacation wants and desires so that you can get the most for the money you contribute toward that total. Wisconsin has a lot to offer—many destinations are just a short drive away—and you’ll want to take advantage of as much of it as you can. Hey, if you’re savvy enough, you might even squeeze in an extra unplanned weekend getaway before Labor Day rolls around. Just be sure to call first. The state’s top spots are filling up fast.

Do Your Homework

Sure, vacations are meant to be fun and not work, but time invested in planning will pay off. “Travelers today have access to more information, so they’re able to make better choices,” says Randy Whiteside, director of sales and marketing at Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in Galena, Illinois.

The U.S. Travel Association reports that more than three quarters of travelers consult the Internet to make their plans. Aggregators such as Expedia and Travelocity are common stops, as are customer review sources such as TripAdvisor.com.

Lisa Morris, executive director of the Green Lake Chamber of Commerce, encourages travelers to also visit chamber and tourism department websites when researching destinations. Her chamber’s website (visitgreenlake.com) has a downloadable visitor’s guide and vacation checklist to help make planning easier. Like many such sites, Green Lake’s includes listings for area lodging and dining options along with an events calendar. It also catalogs popular activities and provides names of area businesses that can help with rentals
and other vacation needs.

The Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau, too, uses its website to promote upcoming events and to highlight area amenities and travel options, and to offer coupons for local attractions. 

While the Internet does provide an exhaustive amount of information, Morris encourages prospective visitors to also pick up the phone to ask questions. That is one of the benefits of a small destination such as Green Lake—travelers can actually spend some time with a local before making any decisions. She also reminds travelers to stop by the Chamber once they get to town.

“We make recommendations,” Morris says, noting that while the lake itself is the primary attraction, the area offers far more to those who want to explore the shores and beyond. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and a lot of it is not necessarily right in front of you,” she says.

Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “A local chamber of commerce in the community is often a good place to check,” she says. “They give really good travel advice and offer travelers some options that they never thought they had.”

Baltus says the Minocqua Chamber can also inform travelers about peak times of the day or week at area attractions so visitors can be sure to catch a certain show or avoid the crowds.

Small size also helps make gathering information about hotels a bit easier. Instead of calling an 800-number and dealing with a customer service agent in Boise when you are trying to book something in Dubuque, you might actually get a manager or real decision maker on the phone when you call a smaller boutique hotel.

“Guests need to, and are actually quite good at, calling us to ask questions. Maybe that’s one of those things that make a smaller hotel a better choice for many guests, because they can call and speak with someone who actually works here and lives here,” says Bill Wellman, general manager of The Dahlmann Campus Inn and Chancellor’s Club, in Madison. 

Wellman, too, says it’s not possible for vacation-hunters to get a complete story from the Internet. “Looking online is a good place to start and can provide a good idea of the value that a guest is getting for their money,” he explains. “However, a phone call and a more in-depth discussion about their needs and expectations and how we can best take care of them is something I always recommend to ensure they are happy with the decision and have an outstanding stay.”

Good Things Come in Travel Packages

Chambers, visitors’ bureaus and destinations themselves often do even more to minimize some of the travel guesswork. Many assemble packages that appeal to certain travelers or particular interests. Instead of piecing together an itinerary on their own, an individual or couple could purchase a package that includes some collection of lodging, dining, attraction tickets, equipment rentals, spa services or more.

“Packages are appealing because guests like to feel they are getting a value,” says Michelle Van Kirk, marketing manager for Heidel House Resort & Spa on Wisconsin’s Green Lake. “Biking has become one of the most popular recreation activities over the last few years. Last summer we began offering a Pedal & Play package to appeal to bike enthusiasts as well as to guests who simply enjoy a combination of activity and rest throughout their stay.”

The Pedal & Play package, for example, includes overnight accommodations, bike rentals, bike essentials (an area map, Green Lake savings passport, drawstring bag and insulated, clip-on bag water bottle) and spa credit.

The DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Madison also offers packages to boost value for guests. For example, the Chazen Museum package includes transportation to the museum, museum admission, a cheese and cracker tray, and a bottle of bubbly.

Package offerings usually last a few months, but they do change over time. That’s why it’s worth it to double-check options before booking, just in case the perfect bundle of services and options has popped on an a particular website.

In addition to packages, many hotels, attractions and chambers often offer ideas, coupons and other deals. For example, in addition to the formal Pedal & Play package, Heidel House also offers sample itineraries focused on different travel objectives, including romance, family, spa, girlfriends and golf. While not packages per se, the itineraries help travelers identify and narrow their options before they hit the road.

The Heidel House is not the only property offering packages. Check websites and pick up the phone to see what is available wherever you’re heading.

Ask for a Promotion

While Ho-Chunk Gaming-Madison does not offer lodging, the casino does partner with and promote area accommodations that, themselves, offer casino packages. Dave Abangan, executive manager, says the cross-promoting partnership works well for the hotels and the casino, plus it offers added value to hotel guests and casino patrons. Ho-Chunk Gaming also offers monthly and daily promotions that award prizes and casino cash. For example, Wednesday is always Senior Day, which is when individuals age fifty or over get free casino money they can use to gamble.

At Your Doorstep

Another way to simplify travel planning is to stay at a resort that offers a wide range of activities. That way you can make your reservation and show up knowing that there will be something to do, rain or shine.

Carol Schauer, owner of Schauer Marketing, promotes The Beacons Resort in the North Woods epicenter, Minocqua. Like many resorts, The Beacons offers a variety of accommodations from rooms to cabins, and it occupies a prominent and breathtaking swath of frontage on Lake Minocqua.

“I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful it is,” Schauer says, “and it is an all-around perfect resort. You can go out on a boat. You can go fishing. You can go swimming. You can rent bikes. You can kayak. I can’t imagine what you couldn’t do.”

Eagle Ridge (mentioned earlier) is also a one-stop vacation shop. Set on 6,800 acres of rolling hills, the resort on Lake Galena offers twenty-four miles of walking and horse trails, sixty-three holes of championship golf on four different courses, dining, a spa and more. Guests can rent vacation homes, villas or standard rooms in the lodge. Just ninety minutes from Madison, Eagle Ridge is a quick getaway that promises options to travelers no matter how much or how little time is put into planning.

As director of sales and marketing, Randy Whiteside encourages guests to do some research so they arrive ready to go, but the resort can accommodate those who just needed a quick escape and decided to take a chance on his facility. “When you get here, we have pontoon boats and fishing poles [and] we can get you the license,” he says. “You just don’t want to get here and think, ‘I wish I had known to bring some shoes to go horseback riding.’”

Be a Tourist All the Time

You don’t have to fly all the way to China to act like a tourist and soak in all the sights. There is plenty to see and do here and near Wisconsin, so don’t be afraid to grab your camera and Hawaiian shirt, and hit the road. Even if you’re just going there and back in a day.

After all, this is Wisconsin. You don’t have to travel far to find a lake or hiking trail or even a slot machine. Heidel House Resort is about seventy-five minutes away. The town of Green Lake is just beyond—a mere ninety-minute drive, as is Eagle Ridge Resort, just over the Illinois border in Galena. The twenty miles of the Manitowoc/Two Rivers Coast shoreline is just two and a half hours away. The Beacons and the rest of Minocqua are a beautiful four-hour drive into the North Woods and the Ho-Chunk Casino-Madison is right here in town.

“We’re not Vegas, but we’re the closest thing to Vegas you’re going to find in Madison,” Abangan says of Ho-Chunk. “We are just a different opportunity for Madison to unwind or experience some excitement on a daily basis.”

Art lovers, too, have a lot to explore in Wisconsin even after they’ve been to the Chazen or Milwaukee Art Museum. Rated one of the top ten great places to see art in smaller cities by USA Today, the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc offers a mix of nineteenth century masters and world-class mid-twentieth century art that includes a Picasso and a Warhol.

“The Rahr-West fits perfectly into the must-see museums in Wisconsin,” says Jason Ring, president of the Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau. “It is not as architecturally modern as the Milwaukee Art Museum [and it] does not have a name like the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, but it is every bit as great a place to view art.”

This summer the museum will host Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture of the Interior, a special traveling exhibit that is stopping only once in Wisconsin, and that stop is at the Rahr-West. “After seeing the exhibit, [visitors can] travel north to the city of Two Rivers where [they] can tour the Bernard Schwartz house, a home designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Ring notes.

Of course, Wisconsin offers plenty of the just-get-away-from-it-all options. The Lake Michigan coast from Manitowoc to Two Rivers is about more than just art. You can find shipwreck diving, charter fishing and lighthouse tours, along with sandy beaches that are as broad as any ocean’s. Or head to Minocqua and you’ll quickly realize that the nostalgic North Woods are just as idyllic today as they were when you went there as a child. Whether you just want to bury your nose in a book lakeside, get wet in the water, or nibble on a classic supper club relish tray, Minocqua can meet your needs.

“Anyone can come to the North Woods and have a good time,” Baltus says. “We have hiking, biking and boating. You can find fun and relaxation in an area filled with beautiful lakes, crystal clear water, great dining and attractions for families. The trail system is especially vast and very nice. You don’t have to be any particular skill level to take a walk in the woods to see eagles overhead. You just can’t beat that canopy in the woods … as long as you remember to take your bug spray!”

Share Your Thoughts

Your own ideas and reactions can make nearby destinations even better. Heather Stetzer, director of sales for Madison’s boutique HotelRED on the corner of Monroe and Regent Streets, says a little feedback can go a long way. Stetzer encourages travelers to use those comment cards at the front desk of the hotel or to leave feedback on TripAdvisor.com.

Despite what tourists may think, Stetzer says the hotel does review all of the suggestions and criticisms, and they act on them when possible. Sometimes guests get complimentary stays because of inconveniences or problems. Other times, the hotel actually implements guest recommendations. For example, when it became apparent that numerous hotel guests would appreciate a fitness room, HotelRED acted and installed one overlooking Camp Randall.

Stetzer says it was a hit right away. “We opened mid-April and had people using it that day,” she says. “We didn’t even have signs up yet.”

Back at the Dahlmann Campus Inn, general manager Wellman says feedback generated at TripAdvisor and other websites helps hotels maintain quality and serve guests as much as it has helped travelers make decisions. The frank notes that many tourists write give Wellman insight into current expectations and emerging travel desires. “It’s always interesting to hear what our guests are looking for or read what they’ve suggested … and what they’ve found to their liking in other places they’ve visited,” he says.

In fact, these customer comments and suggestions, Wellman says, have driven other travel industry improvements that benefit all travelers. Service expectations are higher, and hotels like his strive to offer each guest a personalized experience and make the kind of impression that will prompt guests to comment online. Free Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV are standards now, since guests can easily figure out which properties offer them and which don’t. Connection and navigation are easier than ever because travelers will remark if service is slow or cumbersome. Wellman also notes that a decade ago, a clean room and ample breakfast were enough to keep customers happy. Not so anymore.

“I think five or ten years ago the expectations around those items were pretty basic,” he says. “Now, for example, guests are asking for healthier breakfasts with more variety as well as [for] more luxurious bedding than ever before.”

The North Central Group, which manages more than a thousand hotel rooms, primarily in the Southwest and Midwest, takes the feedback to heart as well. At each of its properties, NCG staff members endeavor to provide the kind of service that prompts comments such as this one from an Arizona guest:

“I love this hotel. The staff are absolutely top-notch...friendly, helpful, pleasant and accommodating. I also love that I can grab a light supper and a glass of wine after a long day of work and not even have to leave the hotel.  Since I still had work to do when I returned to the room in the evenings, a glass of wine, supper and a good Internet connection made life much more pleasant. I’ll be back every time I’m in Chandler on business.”

And that’s what everyone—travelers as well as hotel properties—wants to hear. Travelers like knowing they can expect to have a good experience, and hotel proprietors like to know that their guests will be satisfied enough to say so.


-Jennifer Garrett

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