In Door County, everyone is in the tourism industry. There are the obvious jobs such as seasonal restaurant server, hotel operator and zip line tour leader. But there are also the farmers who are learning the word “agritourism,” the bankers who manage the $289 million of visitor spending each year and the medical personnel who treat injured hikers and your niece who gets poison ivy every year when she visits.
But none are more entrenched in the tourism industry than those who work at the visitor information centers in each of the local communities. They are the first line of defense between the busy summer season and those of us who work in the county’s industries and they field some of the most curious questions so that we don’t have to.
“The hilarious parts come from mostly the questions they ask,” said Digger DeGroot, who has worked at the Fish Creek Information Center for 15 years. “Sometimes we might want to refer to them as ‘city people,’ but some of the questions we get quite often are, ‘What is it like here in the winter? We’re from Omro or outside of Green Bay.’ I don’t know if they think they went to the North Pole or something.”
When the visitors are done pondering what it’s like when restaurants are closed and the bay is frozen over, they ask what there is to do now.
“People come in November looking for cherries, they come in May looking for apples,” said DeGroot. “Many people have no conception of when produce is ready.”
But DeGroot handles the inquiries with a patience that most in the tourism industry could not afford. He knows when your favorite restaurant opens and when it closes, the prices of local theaters, where the nearest lighthouse is and directions everywhere in between.
Chris Milligan, coordinator of the Sister Bay Advancement Association (SBAA), also handles the industry with unflinching patience.
“They call the lake the ocean. Why aren’t there cherries in October? I think if you played those questions back to them they would know that it was a silly question,” said Milligan.
“Our mission is to help them find what they want or they might like in northern Door,” said DeGroot. “Most people have no idea of everything there is to do in Door County. They’re here and they might have a tunnel [vision] because they’re here to see lighthouses, to see just this or just that. They have no idea of all the things available, whether it’s shops, galleries, entertainment.”
When it comes to the arrival of tourists, those in the visitor centers have an unusually sensitive pulse on how things are going at any time during the year.
“Having been here for this many years, you learn the rhythms of the tourism business,” said DeGroot, who will always view the middle of June through August as the busy months, regardless of the attempts to bulk up the shoulder seasons.
By watching which pamphlets and materials are always empty on the racks, he is also tuned into what the visitors are looking for when they come here.
“There’s more interest now in silent sports than there used to be,” said DeGroot. “There’s a little more interest in nature than there used to be, people wanting to know where the Land Trust trails are, The Ridges. There are certain things that don’t change. Lighthouses are still a big thing. The goats on Al Johnson’s roof are still a big thing. Peninsula State Park is still a big thing. Washington Island is still a big thing.”
Milligan has noticed the same trends in Sister Bay.
“I think there’s less retail questions,” said Milligan. “People ask more about where to kayak, Land Trust nature trails, which is very exciting to me. I happen to like those types of questions because that says to me those types of visitors are going to have more of an attachment to the peninsula.”
Meanwhile, questions about the best bar in each town are less frequent.
“In the ’70s and ’60s if you were going to go home and ride your bike, people wanted to know what was wrong with you. You’re supposed to go out all night and party and then lay on the beach. So that’s changed,” said DeGroot, remembering the days when he could have fielded those types of questions with expert detail.
Despite working for the people of Fish Creek through the Fish Creek Civic Association, DeGroot said he sends visitors all over the county to help them find what they are looking for.
But visitors are not the only ones coming into the visitor center with questions. DeGroot’s position as tourist expert is well respected by local business owners.
“When are they coming? When’s it going to start? How busy is it?” said Digger of his conversations with locals. “Ninety percent of the locals, even retired people, they’re involved in the dynamics of living here.”
Milligan said locals that come to him are often looking for things to do when friends or family come to visit.
“Sometimes when you live in a place, you forget all there is that’s going on,” said Milligan. “I’m not talking about the events and festivals that we have, but the other things there are to do. It wasn’t until I sold our business [Inn at Kristofer’s] that I became more familiar with the nature aspect of Door County.”
“It’s nice to be able to help people,” said DeGroot, who has found mechanics for broken down cars on a Sunday in January and tracked down hotel reservations for people who forgot where they were staying. “That’s part of the fun of it, sharing what we like about Door County.”