Gov. Scott Walker has made his mantra that, “Wisconsin is open for business,” a hallmark of his administration. For a while, deregulation and tax cuts aimed to boost industry in the state.
But the Walker administration’s view of industry in Wisconsin has grown to include tourism, and the state’s investment has earned a pretty big return. For every taxpayer dollar that goes into the tourism, the state sees an $8 return through tourism spending in local economies. The average Wisconsin household saved $640 in taxes thanks to the revenue gathered from the tourism industry in 2015. More than 190,000 jobs are supported by tourism.
These facts come together every year in a new location in the state for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism (WIGCOT). This year, the conference took place March 12 – 14 at the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee.
After an address from Gov. Walker, focused on the construction of the Milwaukee Bucks new arena in downtown Milwaukee, and Secretary of Tourism Stephanie Klett, keynote speaker and National Geographic travel writer Andrew McCarthy spoke about what draws him to certain places, and what draws him back.
“Don’t sell me a destination, tell me a story,” said McCarthy. Having never been to Milwaukee before and doing most of his work internationally, McCarthy spoke about his trips to Ireland and Muslim nations while emphasizing that it’s the people in the area rather than the sights that will always bring him back.
But a tourism employee can’t advertise their really great people so easily. The Department of Tourism tried to capture this Wisconsin culture in marketing the Wisconsin supper club experience in their 2016 campaign.
Their commercials show a couple of old guys shooting the bull in a full bar over old fashioneds. Everyone is having a grand time and it ends with the tagline, “When you’re having fun, we’re having fun.”
In playing up Wisconsin fun, the Department of Tourism is working on its weaknesses. The department contracted with Longwoods International, a tourism and travel research firm to explore the perception of Wisconsin versus other Midwest states.
The research outlines 10 of the most important factors that tourists consider when deciding where to spend their coveted vacation days. One of those, “A fun place for vacation,” is one of Wisconsin’s lowest scores.
But the state makes up for that in indicators such as affordability, fall colors, excellent fishing and outdoor recreation.
How to Advocate: School Start Date, Room Tax
From school start date to room tax, there are a handful of legislative issues that have a direct impact on the tourism industry in the state. At one of the breakout sessions, representatives from the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin and Wendy Riemann of 1492 Communications discussed these issues and how to address them with elected officials.
Assembly Bill 103 and, more recently, Senate Bill 96 are identical bills aimed at allowing schools to start before Sept. 1. The measure continues coming up in legislative sessions and tourism advocates continue resisting it.
Speaking about its impact on the tourism industry, Trisha Pugal of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association said, “In Wisconsin, August is completely different than June. We also have the issue of high school employees…We also have the loss of business as far as travelers that would come in at the end of August.”
Pugal said the lobby in support of the bill is strong and organized, primarily made up of educators and school administrations. She then went through the list of arguments made by this lobby and refuted them.
Saying that the current start date puts Wisconsin students at a disadvantage for AP exams that take place in May, Pugal said there is no research to back this claim up and Wisconsin students are actually showing increased test scores.
In response to the claim that schools want more flexibility, Pugal said the governor recently lifted the 180-day requirement for the school year and is now considering removal of the required number of hours during the school year, giving ample flexibility.
Pugal emphasized that two weeks in June is not the same as two weeks in August when it comes to tourism.
“For most of you in the upper half of the state you know what your lakes are like in early June as opposed to August,” said Pugal. “The tourism fed is strongly encouraging that everybody oppose this bill.”
Room tax also came up at the session as it is probably the most pertinent law to tourism these days.
The Tourism Federation of Wisconsin maintains opposition to changes in the room tax law that would shift dollars away from tourism marketing and promotion. Pugal said the legislature could be seeing one of those changes in this legislative session.
“Right now there is a consideration enabling municipalities to take a part of room tax revenue, it would allow them to spend all of it if they wanted to on economic development,” said Pugal.
Municipalities in Door County currently keep 30 percent of room tax dollars that they earn in their district. Of that 30 percent, 70 percent goes toward that municipality’s tourism promotion entity such as the Fish Creek Civic Association or the Baileys Harbor Community Association. Although not yet a bill, there is consideration that municipalities could spend their entire 30 percent on economic development instead of tourism promotion, essentially turning the room tax into a consumption tax that local governments can use in whichever way they please.
Since most tourism entities vehemently oppose these changes, Wendy Riemann followed up with how to approach elected officials as an advocate.
Riemann served as Gov. Walker’s director of federal relations before starting her own strategic communications firm, 1492 Communications.
“Lobbyist is not a dirty word,” said Riemann at her opening. “You have the right to petition the government. It’s not only your right, it’s your responsibility. If you are seeing something and you want to bring about change, you have to do it.”
Riemann said there are three things that elected officials consider when making a decision on which way to vote or which bill to introduce: reason, emotion and district.
If the change in school start date will cause your business to lose $8,000 in those last two weeks of August, you are appealing to reason. If the change in school start date means you have to miss your family reunion in Wyoming that is the only time your kids can see your parents, you are appealing to emotion. If your district is reliant on tourism as a major part of its economy and your entire district (and thus your elected official’s district) would suffer from an earlier school start date, you are applying to district. Legislators want to hear about one of these three. Bonus points if you can include more.
The common thread through Riemann’s talk was that to be an effective advocate, you have to build a relationship with your elected officials, not badger them as a stranger as soon as they do something you disagree with.
“You don’t get a best friend overnight, you don’t get a husband or wife overnight, you have to build those relationships. It’s the same way with elected officials,” said Riemann.
When Nature Calls
One of the first breakout sessions at the conference, When Nature Calls, focused on the ability to use an area’s natural resources to promote tourism. Julie Fox, specialist for the northwest region of the Department of Tourism after spending 28 years at Interstate Park near St. Croix, and Dale Cox, National Park Ranger for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, spoke about the value of natural resources in tourism.
They focused on their extensive experience with the St. Croix area, detailing the area’s tourism history.
“It’s surprising how many people recreate on our lakes, on our rivers,” said Cox. “Wisconsin really has been a leader in the development of state parks and natural resources.”
“Wisconsin is rich in scenic beauty but it’s also that diverse natural resource that brought people and industry to our state,” said Fox.
Before casinos and performance venues and amusement parks, people were forced to recreate using only the natural world around them.
“Because of the influx of tourists, some local citizens began to see that as an economic driver. Perhaps it would be beneficial to them if they were to preserve that scenic beauty,” said Fox about the creation of Interstate Park.
“We realized that the public would not buy into the national park system unless we can get people into the parks. If we can’t get people into the parks we’re not going to have future generation stewards for the parks,” said Cox.
That’s where tourism marketing and promotion comes in.
Cox said few people in the area even know that the St. Croix Riverway is a federally protected land in the national park system. Visitors assume it is administered by the Department of Natural Resources and that’s a perception he is trying to change.
That research from Longwoods International returned promising results for outdoor recreation. If visitors are not in the state to see family, nearly all of them are here for outdoor recreation.
“Those are the people we can market to and those are the people that say they enjoy those outdoor activities,” said Fox.
In a time when Wisconsin is trying to make its state park system self-sustaining, tourism marketing and promotion may need to work harder with the state parks to ensure they are getting enough visitors into the parks to allow for that self-sustaining structure.
Some who attended the breakout session felt it lacked concrete ideas on how to promote and attract people to an area’s natural resources. Between Aldo Leopold quotes and pictures of sunsets, there was little in the way of what has been working in natural resource promotion.
“I wish there was a little more substance with what’s going on with budgets and our open spaces and not enough is being given to its importance in tourism,” said Mark Schuster, owner of Bay Shore Outfitters.
“What we wanted to do is remind you that nature does call and it’s calling loudly to those folks that have been here. Wisconsin is known for its scenic beauty so let’s heed that call,” said Fox.
Aaron Szyf, an economist with the United States Travel Association, presented his group’s data on travel trends within and outside of the United States, emphasizing the fact that tourism and travel is in fact an industry.
“We take different industries, we look at retail, entertainment and we come up with these economic models to show that travel really does make a difference,” said Szyf, adding that the use of an index gives the industry and its data more credibility.
While still refining the relatively new index, Szyf was able to explain many of the travel trends the association is seeing.
First, the group differentiates between domestic and international travel.
“International travel has suffered until the last few months. Our dollar has remained stronger than anybody had ever predicted. It’s actually hurting us, exports and international travel,” said Szyf, adding that tourism is actually an export.
The United State’s share of online hotel searches has decreased and in a follow-up survey, Szyf said foreign perceptions of President Trump have added to the decline in international travel.
“Many people are saying that the political climate is influencing their decisions,” said Szyf. “It sounds like people from Middle Eastern countries are not coming as much.”
But according to Szyf, that same change in presidency has fueled the domestic travel market, primarily in business travel.
The Travel Association is strict in trying to separate business from leisure travel. The domestic travel market has been increasing at different speeds of growth every year since the 2008 financial crisis. This trend has been held up by increases in leisure travel despite being held down by declining business travel.
“Consumers are generally feeling better. Wages have grown,” said Szyf. “People are just more interested than they ever were before and that’s particularly leisure travelers. More and more millennials are interested in spending money on experiences instead of things. One of those prime experiences is travel.”
While business travel has suffered in the past few years, Szyf said, that same presidential influence on international travel could be what turns business travel around.
President Donald Trump’s campaign promises of deregulation and tax cuts have left businesses feeling more optimistic.
“Generally, [Trump’s administration has] been seen as very business friendly,” said Szyf. “Businesses have been investing more in the past few months. Businesses just feel better now than they did a year ago.”
While Szyf couldn’t point to any trends within Wisconsin or the Midwest, he did say that the overall data can help tourism promoters know where to spend their time and attention to attract visitors.
“Knowing that business travel is about to recover and being able to see why it’s going to recover, knowing that helps us budget, helps us plan,” said Szyf. “Knowing where to put our eggs in what basket is helpful for anyone in the travel industry. It helps us lobby our governments for more money. We should take advantage this type of research to use it.”
Overall, the state of tourism in Wisconsin is strong but there is still a feeling of needed improvement throughout the state. When it only takes a little bit to swing the pendulum between Door County and Traverse City for a Chicago family’s summer weekend, the state is feeling pressure in competition.
As tourism is increasingly recognized as a major export and economic driver within a state, one that can even create new business opportunities and interstate immigration, everyone is trying to slice a bigger piece.
While Gov. Walker held the Department of Tourism’s promotional budget the same in his most recent budget proposal, a victory in the face of several budget cuts elsewhere, the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin is advocating for a $3 million increase in the next two years. Minnesota recently reinvested in its tourism promotion, putting it on par with Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Michigan and Illinois are spending $12 and $32 million more on their tourism promotion than Wisconsin.
If that trend continues, hopefully Andrew McCarthy was speaking for everyone when he said, “Don’t sell me a destination, tell me a story.”