The state Department of Tourism recently announced it will eliminate staff positions at the eight Wisconsin welcome centers as part a $1.7 million budget cut over the next two years.
Eight full-time, five part-time permanent and 30 part-time seasonal jobs are being eliminated.
“Our state is faced with a $5.7 billion deficit. To help alleviate some of that, all state agencies were required to make budget cuts, some operational and some permanent,” said Kelli Trumble, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
According to Trumble, all state departments were required to take a 12.5-percent budget cut.
The state owns seven of the eight welcome centers. The centers located in Kenosha, Beloit, La Crosse, Grant County, Hudson, Superior and Hurley are owned and operated by the Department of Transportation. The center in Marionette is owned by the city.
“We really had to look at every possible place (for cuts), in our budget. We had to look at our core mission to market Wisconsin, to inspire people to love the Wisconsin experience and invite them to travel here and thus drive revenue to the state,” Trumble said. “In order to do that effectively, we decided to move out of the bricks and mortar business and focus on online and other marketing efforts.”
According to Trumble, traffic on the Travel Wisconsin website is at an all-time high and has been steadily increasing for some time, while traffic at the visitor centers and the call center is actually decreasing.
“We really saw this as the time and the opportunity to change the way we are doing business so that as consumer lifestyles are changing, as markets are changing, we are moving with it,” she said.
However, not everyone agrees with the decision to cut staffing at the welcome centers.
“I just think this came at the worst time,” said Roger Stafford, managing editor of tourism magazine, Key Milwaukee. “The justification for closing the centers was because attendance last year was down. Well, gas prices last year were really high. People weren’t driving as much. I understand the need for budget cuts, but closing all of the centers in a year when gas prices are down and people are talking about shorter-distance vacations doesn’t make sense, when we could expect to see some growth.”
According to Trumble, the centers will probably still be used for rest stops and some of them may serve as self-service visitor centers that feature literature on Wisconsin travel plans and attractions. The Department of Tourism will also look to build relationships with some of the community visitor centers and chambers of commerce to help pick up some of the amenities that the welcome centers provided, she said.
“We are hoping to forge these partnerships so that the local chambers and visitor centers can handle the customer care side of things,” said Trumble. “We don’t see that any services will be missed, because convention bureaus will provide the same services.”
David Fantle, vice president of Visit Milwaukee, said budget cuts had to be made, and doing it this way will still leave many of the Department of Tourism’s traditional marketing dollars intact.
“Losing these welcome centers that had these very knowledgeable friendly people there to help them is certainly a significant loss,” Fantle said. “However, the largest portion of the budget cuts was focused in this particular area, because everyone recognizes the value of telling the Wisconsin story to get people to come visit here.” n