Expect shorter trips, last-minute decisions

WISCONSIN DELLS – I hear that you want to stay closer to home, and that’s understandable, but a lot of people hope you don’t barricade yourself until war talk ends.

Their livelihood, and the state’s economic health, depends on your decision to leave home once in a while.

About 1,000 tourism industry leaders were here this month for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, an annual event that is a chance to network, get motivated, learn to work smarter and absorb the predictions of researchers.

Their observations? Travelers prefer driving to flying, vacations are getting shorter (four days, or less), destinations are typically three to six hours from home, and there is more last-minute decision making about travel.

War will not to enhance the allure of travel, particularly international. Leisure travel has the capability of bouncing back faster than business travel. And, even before President Bush’s ultimatum, safety was the most important factor when deciding where and when to go away.

This is a great conference because I always meet good people and come home with a satchel full of story ideas. Informed sources are all in one place, but I also visited two women who were too busy working to attend.

Vivian Kuniega, with husband Alex, has operated the 21-room Finch Motel here since 1995. Owning a business, and being able to send two children through college, is the Poland natives’ version of the American dream come true.

I was the motel’s only guest on a weeknight this month. The cost was $35, about one-half the summer rate, for a modest but sparkling clean room.

The Kuniegas are remodeling, making their units a bit bigger to better accommodate families on a budget. A microwave and mini-refrigerator will go into each room; that’s what families told the proprietors that they need.

Heading out of town, a curvy side street leads to the dream business of the second woman. Sundara Spa is for adults, not children, and is billed as the only destination spa in Wisconsin. It’s been open a week, and CEO Kelli Trumble’s goal is to pamper customers excessively.

I was treated to the Sundara Sandstone Polish, one hour of gentle scrubbing, hydrating, showering and massaging. It is a $75 spa service, not counting gratuity. Overnight rates are $159 to $465, depending on time of year and type of room.

Trumble used to be executive director of the Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau and is accustomed to dreaming big. She helped establish the city as a year-round vacation destination, nurturing indoor waterpark development and establishing the annual Flake Out Festival.

Her publicist says calls already are coming in from corporations and women’s health groups that consider an extensive spa experience to be one way to enhance health.

Or relieve stress, in the event of virtual shellshock or unkindly twists from everyday living.

Over at the Finch Motel, there is no HBO, continental breakfast, in-room mini-bar or hair dryer. What the Kuniega family profits from are the fond memories of budget-conscious travelers.

“Couples who met each other here will come back many years later, to celebrate an anniversary,” Vivian Kuniega says. “This used to be the nicest place to stay in the area, 50 years ago.”

Now it is one of many mom-pop lodging options on or near Broadway Street, the oldest part of the city, and it’s getting harder to compete with the bells, whistles and waterparks of larger and newer properties.

“People would like us to have a swimming pool,” Kuniega says, shrugging, “but a lot of them in summer will just go to Noah’s Ark for the day.”

War worries her, but she has no regrets about her family’s line of work. Alex is a seasonal employee at Ho-Chunk Casino; their son works part time at Walmart.

“I like this business,” Kuniega says. “There are a lot of nice people who come through, and I just try to do my best for them.”

Back at the convention, hosted by the lush and expansive Kalahari Waterpark Resort, participants seemed more preoccupied with known economic roadblocks than speculation about war.

Dottie Hoy of Main Street Mayville Inc. (Dodge County) wonders whether the city will scrap its entire $15,000 commitment to tourism, because of the state’s shared-revenue cuts. That would be a huge chunk of Hoy’s annual budget.

Dale Williams, director of the H.H. Bennett Studio and History Center, Wisconsin Dells, talks about how financial abandonment has caused infighting among people who had been allies in preserving state history.

He will use more volunteers as guides at the Bennett site and hopes to confine the other effects of budget cuts to behind-the-scenes work.

Others hope that trickle-down effects don’t turn into devastating floods, or financial droughts.

Tourism remains the second largest industry in Wisconsin, behind manufacturing and ahead of agriculture, generating $11.7 billion from travelers in 2002. That’s 2 percent more than 2001.

“We continue to grow despite the state of the nation’s economy, and the talk of war,” says Kevin Shibilski, the state’s secretary of tourism.

He believes that Wisconsin has “what travelers want right now, a getaway that is close to home, a good value and an opportunity to relax with family and friends.”

“Adversity introduces us to ourselves,” observed keynote speaker Dan Clark, known for his contributions to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series. “No one knows how good we can become until we’re tested.”