In Wisconsin, the tourism industry is an economic driver, providing $1.6 billion in tax revenue into the state’s coffers and employing hundreds of thousands of workers.
But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic saw winners and losers in the industry, said Andrew Nussbaum, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s regional tourism specialist.
Nussbaum was the speaker at the Waunakee Area Chamber of Commerce’s virtual Chamber Chat on Jan. 21. He described his agency’s role in helping local businesses and also forecast a nearly full recovery from tourism losses due to the pandemic in the next three years or so.
The pandemic dealt major blows to tourism related to sporting events, with no large crowds attending Brewers or Packers games, dining and drinking at local establishments or staying in hotels.
And conventions moving to virtual formats has further contributed to hotels, restaurants and bars seeing meager crowds. The counties most affected have been Dane, Milwaukee and Brown.
The winners were counties with campground and cabin operators, along with paddling and kayak outfitters.
Nussbaum said in the northern counties, snow brings snowmobilers and skiers.
“Outdoor folks say they had the best summer ever. Now the challenge for that was, how do you run a socially responsible, distancing, safe business when you’ve got lines of people down the street?” Nussbaum said.
But Nussbaum said he is an optimist, and a national survey taken every two weeks to gauge the recovery shows that 63% of travelers plan to travel in the next six months.
“Is that good? Well, I’d hope for 100%, but if you go back to a month ago it was at 57%. We’ve already seen a 6% increase in traveler intent just over the last month,” Nussbaum said, attributing the increase partly to the decrease in COVID-19 numbers.
Only 9% of American travelers said they would not travel in 2019.
Of those who do plan to get away, 31% said they intend to travel by car. That’s helpful for Wisconsin’s tourism economy, as Wisconsin is called a “flyover state,” with no major hub of international airports, Nussbaum said.
Some 90% of travelers arrive to Wisconsin in a personal vehicle.
Industry predictions show that in 2023-24, the United States will have recovered 93% of travel spending lost during the pandemic.
Nussbaum offered advice for local retailers, food/beverage, lodging and other businesses who see tourist traffic. The website TravelWisconsin.com serves over 10 million people per year, and is one of the top four or five travel sites in the United States. The cost to list a business on the site is free and is open to qualified tourism businesses.
“Your tax dollars pay for this,” Nussbaum said.
Most of the business listings are supplied by local chambers of commerce. Business owners can also subscribe the WisTravel newsletter, which provides information such as, recently, the CARES Act.
“Some of your best advertising and promotion is free and often comes from proactively engaging with the media,” Nussbaum added. He suggested business owners create a press release and an elevator speech or pitch.
Nussbaum has worked in hospitality and he offered some advice for restaurateurs and hoteliers.
“There’s two people – people you met before: regular customers, people you know, people you love, people in your family,” Nussbaum said.
But regular customers don’t always offer honest feedback. Nussbaum suggested focusing on new customers.
“We need the other line of people. Those are the people you haven’t met yet,” Nussbaum said.
“If you could pick up one of those people every single day, just one… that changes everything. That’s your public relations. What’s your pitch?” Nussbaum said.
He asked Chamber members to think about what makes Waunakee a “cool place to go.”
While economists often talk about millennials, a new generations of centennials, individuals 25 and younger, has emerged.
“They’re the new economy, they’re the newest traveler; they’re the newest spender,” Nussbaum said. “They’re the people we’ve got to focus on now, because if we can get them hooked by age 21 and have them for the next 50 years, we’ve got them.”