Apathy, lazy advice drive tourists away

Not all that long ago, in the gift shop at an upscale Wisconsin resort, a friend asked whether there were any antique stores nearby.

“I don’t know,” was the reply. “I’m not from around here.”

There was no offer to find out more, and no clue about the impression that had been left with her customers. When pressed a bit, the clerk said she lived one town over. It was less than 10 miles away.

That’s a true story, and that’s not an isolated instance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve swung off the highway, asked a local what there was to do in the area and been told “nothing.”

Sometimes I’ll ask where to eat and find out about good, one-of-a-kind restaurants – but I’m more likely to hear the name of a chain that exists everywhere.

On occasion, this has even happened at a tourist info station.

“Will you be carrying the Badger basketball game,” I asked the barkeep at a bowling alley this month, minutes before gametime. I was eyeing the big screen that was a few empty tables away.

“Maybe it’ll be on, and maybe it won’t,” he said, not overworked and not moving an inch. ’Nuf said. We headed out the door and drove across town, to another big screen and a more civil welcome.

When our ignorance or lack of enthusiasm shows, a visitor has less of a reason to invest time or money. The smart chamber of commerce, or visitors’ bureau, will make sure their front line people know their community, and know how to get answers when they don’t have them. That includes clerks at gas stations that are on major highways.

I’ve also been in Wisconsin towns that unwittingly isolate themselves from their competitors and/or neighboring municipalities. Maybe a high-profile proprietor thinks it’s beneath her to associate with a mom-pop enterprise, or a small town thinks it’ll lose money by acknowledging an attraction that’s across the county line.

Is it incomprehensible to be both partners and competitors?

I’m thinking about all of this because the annual Governor’s Council on Tourism convenes in Madison in a couple of weeks. It’s a big party, complaint session and learning opportunity for around 1,000 people in the tourism industry – urban to rural counties, obscure to internationally known destinations. It tends to draw the choir – those who already are motivated to do it right.

“There’s a pent up demand for travel,” Tourism Secretary Jim Holperin asserted, during an interview this month. “The baby boomer demographic has the time, inclination and resources to travel.”

He calls the potential for growth strong, and private sector investments tremendous.

Where can people go? All the obvious places, plus more. Holperin says more rural communities are learning how to attract visitors. For some, it’s a survival measure, as revenue from agriculture or light manufacturing declines.

“These investors are not doing this arbitrarily,” Holperin says. “They sense the strength in it” and don’t need to aspire to the mega-developments that have occurred – the waterparks in the Wisconsin Dells or golf courses in Kohler.

The state’s spring-summer vacation guide will have a farm vacation page for the first time. Tiny Potosi, in southwest Wisconsin, is working to house a national beer museum. Areas known for snowmobiling are learning to hype their ice fishing, too; snow covers can’t be guaranteed anymore.

The Big Picture Theater of Adventure and Discovery, in downtown Appleton, opens this spring. It, too, is a specialty attraction: The 6-story movie screen is 80 feet wide and 10 times bigger than the typical theater’s.

Gov. Jim Doyle has recommended a $3.8 million increase in tourism marketing statewide during the next biennium. “He understands this is an investment that we’ll get back” through increased tourist business, Holperin says.

A dozen communities also have used $200,000 in diversity planning grants to figure out what they need to grow.

That includes Tomahawk, which has traditionally been modest about its history, heritage and wealth of lush forests and parks. At www.gototomahawk.com, you can read the 22-page report that weighs strengths against challenges.

This is a community that knows it needs to work on its lodging options, emphasize its affordability and shout about its proximity to desirable attractions. It’s already decided that its online “www” stands for “Water Woods Wildlife,” and it has joined Crandon, Antigo, Merrill and Rhinelander in a “Leaf Your Worries Behind” campaign to promote the area’s exquisite foliage.

In the Fox Valley, the answers are different. Consultants say signage and “way finding” should improve. How so? Imagine driving on U.S. 41 and taking an Appleton exit. All around you are big box stores and other shopping options. How do you know that downtown Appleton and its infamous Houdini museum, for example, are just two miles away?

One year ago, the Governor’s Conference on Tourism presented 2004’s Top Six, which included the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and the Grand Excursion 2004 along the Mississippi River.

This year the emphasis is on three themes: birding and ecotourism, performing arts venues and national treasures (anything from national forests and lakeshores to wildlife refuges and national historic landmarks).

Wisconsin’s diversity is a part of what made it so tough to come up with a slogan, Holperin said. Although the first tune to accompany “Wisconsin – Life’s So Good” was scrapped because it sounded too much like somebody else’s music, the new melody will be finished before the conference begins.