Visitor spending in Door County dropped to 404.2 million in 2007, down 3.9 percent ($16.3 million) from 2006, according to statistics released by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Overall, visitors spent $12.78 billion in Wisconsin in 2007, down slightly from $12.83 billion in 2006.
Door County once again ranked seventh among Wisconsin counties in tourism spending, trailing Milwaukee, Dane, Sauk, Waukesha, Brown and Walworth.
The decline did not come as a surprise to Door County Visitor Bureau Director Jack Moneypenny, who stepped into his job in November of 2007.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I heard that business was down, but it wasn’t the focus of what people were telling me.”
Under former director Karen Raymore last year the bureau had set lofty goals for 2007, including raising tourism expenditures to $474 million.
“Those were very aggressive goals,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in having people stand on their toes to reach their goals, but to some degree those goals were unrealistic.”
He said expecting to boost numbers so much in a year when the bureau didn’t receive any new dollars from the room tax until August was a stretch.
But Moneypenny praised two moves made before his arrival. The bureau contracted with Geiger and Associates to bring travel writers to the county last summer, an ongoing program, and enlisted the services of Ebrains to increase and solidify the county’s Internet presence.
“We should feel some of the effect of those decisions this year,” he said.
While disappointed in the numbers, Moneypenny said he didn’t want to waste time looking over his shoulder.
“You can’t dispute them. The numbers are the numbers,” he said. “I could look back and say I wish we would have had this room tax five years ago. But something has to be done now. We’re focused on turning the numbers around. We need to tell our story louder and tell it to more people.”
He pointed out the numbers can’t be considered a reflection on the room tax, as those dollars hadn’t been put into play for the 2007 season. For the last decade the bureau has been operating on a marketing budget of about $250,000. With the room tax put into effect in May of 2007 the budget ballooned to more than $1.5 million.
“My new budget was approved in December,” he said. “The true marketing dollars didn’t start being spent until January. People have to recognize it can take years to move the needle just a little bit. I’m hopeful we’ll make a little impact this season, but I think we’ll see the big impact next season.”
Making an impact this season will entail overcoming several hurdles, including the ongoing war in Iraq, a stumbling national economy, and perhaps most significantly, skyrocketing gas and energy prices.
“High gas and high energy prices in general are not good for anybody,” said Jon Jarosh, Visitor Bureau Marketing Director. But he feels the bureau’s marketing message is one not heavily influenced by the rising cost of transportation.
“Our general message out there is a soft message,” he explained. “We’re in your own backyard; you don’t have to travel far to visit us.”
Moneypenny said the profile of the Door County visitor is not one as heavily influenced by gas prices as others.
“When you look at our customer – age 35-54, income level over $75,000 (some say $125,000) – will they be deterred by an extra $30 for gas?” he asked. “I don’t think they will.”
He acknowledged the county may lose visitors from Iowa, Missouri, southern Indian and Ohio, but he expects to compensate by hitting Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota harder than ever before.
“We’re hitting the right people, those within a one-tank drive,” Moneypenny said. “I don’t expect a blockbuster year, but maybe it will be because people don’t want to go far away.”
This summer the bureau will launch a new promotional program to accentuate the easy accessibility of the peninsula to travelers in the one-day drive radius, aimed at bringing visitors to the county immediately. For the first time, they’ve put together a TV ad campaign to hit viewers in the Fox Valley. Bureau members within the Door County Tourism Zone have the opportunity to purchase space on three ads, for $100 per ad, on FOX 11. The 20-week campaign will begin airing in late May or early June during Good Day Wisconsin, the most popular morning program in the market.
“We’ve never had the resources for something like this before,” Jarosh said.
The ads will use 17 seconds to promote Door County in general, followed by 5-7 seconds devoted to the sponsor business, before closing with a final Door County message. Businesses will work with FOX 11 to produce their segment. The campaign includes a presence on FOX 11’s Web site, fox11online.com.
“This is not part of our general image marketing, this is direct guerrilla marketing,” he said. “Right now we’ve filled 105 of 140 spots. That guarantees that viewers will see Door County every morning for 105 days straight.”
It’s a campaign that wouldn’t have been possible within the constraints of the old bureau budget, and Jarosh said it’s a relief to have the flexibility to take on a new program without sacrificing another you believe in.
“We’re not pulling resources away from Minneapolis, Chicago, or Milwaukee,” he said. “In fact, we’re adding to those as well. And we’ve launched a sponsorship program with Wisconsin Public Radio.”
Moneypenny acknowledged and embraced the criticism that the bureau is “preaching to the choir” by hammering that core demographic.
“I would agree with that,” he said. “We have a defined audience. Why find a new customer if the customer coming here is working? We’re lucky we know who we are, who is coming here and why. A lot of destinations don’t have that information.”
That said, he also thinks there is a lot of room to grow niche markets to accentuate the core. He earmarked five niche markets for further growth: parks and green-lands, water and water sports, arts and culture, culinary, and eclectic shopping.