Area Tourism Leaders Speak Out
The region’s hospitality industry is in critical condition. After a record year of visitor spending in Wisconsin in 2019, the effect of COVID on the regional hospitality industry has been devastating, imparting both an economic toll on communities and a personal toll on the tens of thousands of regional people who work in the industry. Madison, Wisconsin Dells, Janesville and Beloit each entered 2020 riding waves of recent visitor spending successes. Wisconsin Dells welcomes over 4 million visitors each year, and in 2019 visitor spending contributed to $1.67 billion of economic impact. In Janesville, visitors spent over $147 million in 2019, up 1.6% from the previous year. The greater Madison area saw record visitor spending in 2019, at $1.4 billion while Beloit recorded $264 million spend by visitors.
We spoke with leaders who represent the regional tourism agencies these destinations and asked for their perspective on how COVID-19 has affected their communities and what hope they have for the future.
How important is tourism/hospitality to your community?
Deb Archer, President and CEO of Destination Madison: Madison’s hospitality and tourism industry is a critical piece of the fabric of our community and economy. Beloved local shops and restaurants, iconic Madison attractions, live music and cultural festivals along with sporting events and legacy tradeshows that take place each year – these entities and events are fueled by visitor spending and reflect the vibrant personality of our destination.
Romy Snyder, President & CEO of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau: Tourism is far more than waterparks, attractions, hotels, golf courses and restaurants. Tourism boosts our local economy, employs thousands of people, supports infrastructure and education, enriches our area businesses and creates economic development in our community. Tourism plays a critical role in Wisconsin Dells.
Christine Rebout, Executive Director at Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau: The tourism industry supports over 125 restaurants and 9 hotels in the Janesville community. Visitors to our community help sustain the community’s largest events including the National Water Ski shows, Freedom Fest, Art Infusion and the Tour of America’s DairyLand Bike Race; enhancing our quality of life and providing great activities for local residents to enjoy.
Celestino Ruffini, CEO at Visit Beloit: Our community recognizes that tourism is a strong backbone to our local economy. Before someone chooses to reside or build a business here, they first come as a visitor to experience our tourism-related assets that are deeply valued not only by visitors, but also by our residents.
How has COVID impacted tourism to your destination?
Archer: At the beginning of the year, we had 22,600 local people working in the hospitality industry and now thousands of those workers are without jobs. Many of our incredible community assets are facing immense struggles due to fewer visitors, the cancellation of major annual events and ongoing restrictions.
Snyder: The community of Wisconsin Dells has, and continues, to suffer catastrophic losses as a direct effect from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our spring/summer seasons account for 66% of our annual income and due to the 2 month shutdown in April and May, plus additional restrictive measures lasting through the summer, many area businesses are suffering extreme losses – forcing at least one attraction to close its doors for good (Tommy Bartlett Show).
Rebout: COVID-19 has cancelled over 100 individual events including sports tournaments, group tours, meetings and community events that draw out of town attendees and overnight guests. These lost events totaled over $7 million in lost economic impact for the community through lost revenues to restaurants, hotels, gas stations and retailers.
Ruffini: Beloit’s balanced blend of leisure, business, and group travel has allowed us to sustain ourselves better than some destinations, but the effects will indeed take years to recover from. A negative impact not spoken about as loud has been on the arts and culture scene with the loss of nearly every festival and event that normally would take place in the spring, summer, and fall. The void is emotional, physical, and social especially because these events are the fabric of our community.
How will tourism help your community recover once our region moves out of COVID challenges?
Archer: It is vital for our community to recognize the value that tourism and hospitality adds to our destination. When visitors return to our community, our economy will begin to recover. Until that time, it is up to us – residents – to help support our hospitality workers and businesses. Ordering takeout, shopping at small businesses, supporting arts and culture venues, taking a staycation at an area hotel – these small acts will make a difference for our industry.
Snyder: Tourism is vital for our community’s survival. The amount of services, products, and facilities created by tourism in Wisconsin Dells is not sustainable, based on the local population of residents only. We will rely heavily on the pent-up demand created by COVID-19 to move our loyal visitors to return to the area and support our local businesses once we move beyond COVID-19 challenges.
Rebout: Tourism will be a key driver in economic recovery for Janesville. When the time is right, there is tremendous pent up demand for business and leisure travel and for sporting tournaments. Janesville’s proximity to the Chicago market, natural beauty and well-known affordability will make it an ideal destination.
Ruffini: The movement of visitors to and through south-central Wisconsin creates the successful economies we are so accustomed to. Our community will recover by encouraging our residents and neighbors to buy a meal at a local restaurant, shop for gifts at the home-grown retailer, and experience a new-to-you attraction in the months ahead. Beyond that, tourism will continue enticing visitors to safely come and enjoy the same things that we as residents get to do daily.
Source: Anna Shircel, PR & Communications Manager, Destination Madison