You know all the things you love about Wisconsin – the gorgeous landscapes and parks, the fishing and boating, the events and festivals? People outside Wisconsin love those things too, and when they come to explore, they help develop an increasingly significant sector of the state economy: tourism.
It’s an industry that provides significant jobs and revenue. In 2012, tourism had a $16.8 billion impact on the state, and supported nearly 184,000 jobs. One in 13 jobs in Wisconsin relies on tourism to exist.
And those numbers are only getting bigger. That $16.8 billion is a 5 percent increase from 2011’s $16 billion, and up 13 percent from 2010’s $14.8 billion. Employment supported by tourism is up 1.4 percent, and a strong increase in day travel lifted recreational spending by 7 percent. Without the tax revenue created by that growth, Wisconsin families would be required to pay almost $575 more a year per household.
“Everything you can think of”
Part of the reason for that growth is the sheer scope and variety of recreation destinations and activities. Urban centers Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay are home to outstanding performing arts venues, sports teams and festivals. Regions like Door County, the Wisconsin Dells, Lake Geneva and Spring Green have earned reputations as vacation hotspots and scenic getaways. And Wisconsin’s natural beauty draws visitors, too, offering prime fishing, golfing, hiking, boating, skiing and snowmobiling. “The tourism industry is literally everything you can think of,” said Stephanie Klett, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
As tourism increases overall, hotels have seen a 4.6 percent growth in revenue, and several lodging and convention centers have been opened or expanded this year, including, the 20,000-foot planned expansion of Elkhart Lake’s Osthoff Resort and the completion of the Milwaukee Marriott, the first full-service downtown hotel built in the city in 20 years.
But Wisconsin’s tourism hotspots aren’t only centered around urban areas. The Northwoods (northwoodswisconsin.com), stretching across the northern third of the state, provide a tantalizing fishing ground in the Eagle River Chain O’Lakes (the largest chain of inland lakes in the world) as well as camping, hiking and boating. Door County’s (doorcounty.com) coastal towns and waterfront beauty have long been a summer refuge, with more miles of shoreline than any other county in the U.S. On the coast of Lake Superior, Bayfield (bayfield.org) serves as a gateway to the 22 stunning Apostle Islands. And Green County (greencounty.org) in the south is home to locally made artisan cheeses complemented by a plethora of beers, sausages, baked goods and Swiss cuisine.
In addition to Wisconsin’s established tourism locations, Klett said she hopes to increase the number of known destinations through a Tourism Assessment program launched last year. This program sends specialists into communities to find out what they could be known for, and helps them get there through marketing proposals and development projects. “It’s a way of building tourism where maybe you don’t expect it,” Klett said. Those specialists are also able to train communities and businesses to provide better customer service, which Klett said is a make-or-break factor in getting tourists to return or convince others to visit.
Marketing Wisconsin: Fun is #1
Much of the reason for Wisconsin’s tourism growth can be attributed to an aggressive marketing strategy, Klett said. Jettisoning previous hunts for just the right slogan – Wisconsin went through five in 15 years – the department instead began marketing Wisconsin as a place for fun – the top travel motivator, according to their research.
This focus on fun has been conveyed through a series of wildly popular commercial campaigns featuring celebrities with local ties. The department began with spots featuring former Fonzie Henry Winkler and actor Tony Shalhoub, who grew up in Green Bay, but hit its sweet spot when they asked Milwaukee-born David Zucker, who rose to fame working on Airplane! and the Naked Gun series with his brother, Jerry, and Jim Abrahams, to join the campaign. Zucker would direct the next two ads, including one the Huffington Pos called “the world’s greatest tourism ad,” and eventually Jerry would get in on the act, too, directing a fall 2013 spot featuring Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson. They’ll even be reuniting Robert Hays and former Milwaukee Buck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for an Airplane!-themed ad later this year. Wisconsin is still working with fewer marketing dollars than regional competitors like Michigan, even after a near-20 percent budget increase in the 2012-13 biennium, but the effectiveness of their campaigns is helping them swing above their weight class.