Finally, you arrive in Door County. Map and guidebook in hand, you scan lists and advertisements for a plethora of restaurants, shops, galleries, wineries, taverns, parks, orchards, and more. You wonder where to rent a kayak. You wonder where to find live music. You wonder where you can buy a can opener. You realize this seemingly small and quaint peninsula has more than you expected.
That’s when a visitor center comes in handy, along with a friendly and knowledgeable person who, with ease and confidence, can describe the differing atmospheres of Chef’s Hat, Wilson’s and The Old Post Office restaurants, direct you to an artist’s countryside gallery, and help you find that can opener all in one breath. If you find yourself in the Village of Ephraim, Rachel Willems may be just that person.
As a Door County native and Ephraim Business Council’s Tourism Administrator, Willems has the resources and experience to answer just about any question, concern, or request regarding Ephraim, as well as the Door County peninsula.
“With this job,” says Willems, “I get to play tourist and do things: go to lighthouses, American Folklore Theatre, the Moravian Church, vineyards, shops, galleries, ride on the trolley, because I have to talk to visitors about it. I have to get in the trenches and experience as much as I can.”
From theater-goers to nature enthusiasts, and art collectors to those looking for a good slice of cherry pie, Door County attracts an array of visitors with questions and requests as diverse as their interests.
“It’s different every time someone walks in,” Willems says, adding that the Visitor Information Center brings a “human-side to their experience. It means more coming from a person than reading about it.”
Willems’s position also has her “wearing a lot of different hats,” as she puts it. “I sit in the visitor center, plan summer concert series, work with public relations firms, work with Fyr Bal committees.” She pauses and attempts to sum up her role by saying, “Essentially, I am the main contact for Ephraim. I am someone who goes out in the community and puts a face to the village.”
As of three years ago, Willems’s position did not exist. The Ephraim Business Council, a band of local citizens promoting tourism, volunteered their time and skills to attract visitors to Ephraim through advertisement and events. A valuable and successful contribution, however, without a “go-to person,” as Willems calls herself, the board had difficulty “streamlining ideas and putting them into action.” According to Debbie Krause, co-owner of Bay Breeze Resort in Ephraim and co-Vice President of the Ephraim Business Council, the board’s time and attention was primarily limited to the Ephraim brochure and Fyr Bal Festival before the introduction of a Tourism Administrator.
“We are volunteers, so we all had our own commitments and jobs,” says Krause. “But Rachel has taken it to such a higher level. She gets it; she’s local. She understands how important tourism is.” Krause also praises Willems by calling her “fabulous.”
Since Willems accepted the position, Ephraim began a successful Monday night concert series during the summer season called Evenings in Ephraim, the visitor center has extended their summer hours, and important marketing projects taken on by Willems continue to advertise Ephraim as a year-round destination.
It’s not every Wisconsin community that has the need or government support to employ a Tourism Administrator. “My position would not be possible without the funding from the local government,” Willems states. “They understand that tourism is the economy for Ephraim.”
Krause expresses pride in the community when she explains that the Village of Ephraim grants the business council a portion of their share of room tax which allows them to employ Willems: “no tax, no Rachel.”
As a result of the positive contributions Willems and her position bestow on Ephraim, as well as the county, other Door County communities are following suit. As Krause says, “Other villages have seen what [Willems] has accomplished.”
Graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, Willems states that the position has relevance to her education and presents “an amazing foot in the door for potential opportunities ahead.”
“I love my job and am so lucky that I can say that,” says Willems. “I’ve been able to work with so many forms of media and publications.”
Though she admits to missing city life now and again, Door County remains home. “I take things day to day,” she says. “I am really content where I am.”
While growing up in Door County, attending Gibraltar High School, and serving at the Sister Bay Bowl, owned by her parents, Willems admits that she did not partake in many “tourist” activities and attractions.
“Now, I have a whole new appreciation for Door County,” says Willems. “I’ve rediscovered this place and learned so much about where I am from.”
As the off-season begins, Willems has a chance to “take a breath,” as she says. “I get to catch up on everything.” Though the pace and atmosphere of the county changes, the visitor center remains open on weekends from November to April.
So, if you find yourself in Ephraim this winter, wondering where to find an open coffee shop or the best park for snowshoeing, stop in the Visitor Information Center. Willems will likely be there, preparing for the summer season ahead, ready to answer any question.
“My favorite part of my job is talking to the visitors,” Willems says, “because, ultimately, it’s all about them.”