State tourism industry looks to capitalize on second half of the year

Meaney says businesses should 'imagine what's possible'

Wisconsin’s tourism industry is looking at a $642 million loss in travel spending from March 7 to April 4 due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, according to recent data from the U.S. Travel Association.

It’s only the beginning of what will be one of the industry’s worst years on record– just when it was headed for its peak– but the Wisconsin Department of Tourism hasn’t given up hope for the upcoming peak season.

“I think it’s impossible to predict how all of this is going play out, but ultimately it would make sense for all of us to imagine what is possible, without expecting it to look the same,” said state Tourism Secretary Designee Sara Meaney in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee. 

While travel has halted due to government restrictions and safer-at-home-orders, the department has been working hard to keep Wisconsin top of mind for travelers planning post-quarantine trips.

The Travel Wisconsin website has been updated with a number of interactive resources and what Meaney calls “hope-driving activities,” such as a sweepstakes and virtual adventures across the state. It has also adjusted its marketing strategy, pushing back its summer ad campaign so that those dollars are used when it is safe for people to travel again.

And when that finally happens this summer or fall, the hope is that Wisconsin will be on travelers’ must-see lists– whether it is Wisconsinites traveling across the state or visitors from neighboring states taking a trip by car, Meaney said.

“Getting in your car is a lot easier, and frankly maybe preferable for folks, over getting in an airplane over the next 12 to 18 months,” she said. 

According to Longwoods International weekly study of 1,000 people, 70% of American travelers are still planning their trips in the next six months, which is up from 65% last week. Travelers are adjusting their plans, from international to domestic trips, and from air travel to car travel, said Peggy Williams-Smith, CEO of VISIT Milwaukee on Thursday during Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s daily COVID-19 briefing.

“2020 is the year of the car and regional travel will come back first so that’s what we’ll be focusing on as we move forward,” Williams-Smith said.

Travel Wisconsin is seeing a 100% increase in requests for its online travel guide, compared to those requests during this time last year, Meaney said.

She encouraged business owners to think about reopening in the context of “dialing back” instead of “switching,” and that operations will likely look different.

“For example, a retail shop or restaurant while opening back up again may need to reduce some of the people in the shop at the same time or the way that they prepare the product, or how many people are seated in a restaurant at a time,” said Meaney. “It may not be to full cap and yet being open again and having some semblance of what we see as normal will be a real welcome change to the shutdown were experiencing now.”

Last year was the best year on record for Wisconsin tourism, with record increases in both total visitors and in visitor spending. In addition, WDT saw a return of $8 in local and state tax revenue on every one dollar spent on promoting the Wisconsin as a travel destination.

Because of its high return rate, Meaney said continuing to invest in tourism will ultimately help support the state’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 public health crisis. 

Get more news and insight in the March 30 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee. Subscribe to get updates in your inbox here.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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