State Parks Reap Recession Rewards

Families are tightening their vacation budgets, and it appears Wisconsin’s state parks are benefitting. Advance reservations at Wisconsin State Parks were up 12 percent through July 27.

“People are looking for a close-to-home, affordable vacation,” said Tom Blackwood, manager of Peninsula State Park, where advance reservations are up 7 percent over 2008.

Newport State Park is up 23 percent, Rock Island 10 percent, and Potawatomi 12 percent. Arnie Lindauer, Regional Parks Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Northeast Region, said camping allows families to save a substantial cost up-front but still take advantage of area businesses and services.

“The amount they spend to camp is a very small part of what they spend in the community,” Lindauer said. “This is especially true at Peninsula, where the park is embedded so closely into the two surrounding villages.”

He credited the staff at all the state parks for maintaining the quality of the parks.

“At a time when budgets are in the toughest shape in years, we’re getting more use than ever,” Lindauer said. “Our employees are doing a great job keeping up with it.”

While most segments of the tourism industry tip-toe into an uncertain future, camping may be uniquely poised for a resurgence.

“Maybe this is getting people out camping again who haven’t done it for years,” Blackwood said. “It might be the beginning of an even bigger boom for camping in the years to come.”

For the year, total camping nights, including walk-ins and advance reservations, are up 32,832 nights. In Door County, total nights were up 5,698 nights.

The statistics support the DNR’s decision in the 1990s to allow state parks to accept a higher percentage of advance reservations. Previously the parks had to leave 50 percent of camp sites open for walk-ins, but the switch to using the services of Reserve America to book sites through an 800 number and online enabled the system to take more reservations. Blackwood said Peninsula now reserves about 10 percent of sites for walk-ins.

Jack Moneypenny, President and CEO of the Door County Visitor Bureau, said the rise in camping illustrates the flexibility of Door County as a destination and the strength of the American tourism economy.

“Travelers are cutting back relative to their income,” Moneypenny said. “They’re still doing things, but at a level below what they did previously. Joe America won’t deprive the family of a weekend away, but it might be closer to home or going camping instead of a resort.”

Moneypenny said he’s cautiously optimistic about where this season’s lodging returns will come in. He said visitor center traffic was up 39 percent in July.

Peers in other destinations have told Moneypenny they’ll be happy if they see single-digit percentage declines in tourism this year.

“Flat is the new up,” is the catchphrase in the industry for 2009, he said.

The destinations being hit hardest this year are those that rely heavily on business and convention travel, which makes up a small fraction of Door County visitors. Moneypenny said the Visitor Bureau is flexible enough to adapt to economic conditions but will stay the course on its long-term marketing plan.

“We’ll continue to focus on our three-year plan enhancing our base image marketing,” he said. “We’re still building that.”

This spring, however, the Visitor Bureau included $25 gift certificates with its Blossom Festival packages, and Moneypenny said more than 1,200 of the various certificates doled out this year have been used by travelers.

Bus Bill

The Wisconsin Assembly Tourism Committee approved a bill authored by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) to allow bus companies to purchase 50 or more daily passes to state parks at a discount. It now moves to the floor for action in the Senate and Assembly.

“Wisconsin’s state park system is a wonderful resource for residents and visitors alike and I hope that this legislation will encourage more tour companies to include our parks as a regular destination,” Bies said.