Tourism success means finding a niche

Dane County ranks second in the state in tourism spending but there are no expansive water park resorts. Little Amerricka in Marshall is the county’s only amusement park, and many of the competitive sporting events don’t require a ball or puck.

Instead, tourism here is built around strengths, amenities and culture. The formula is proving profitable for not just folks in the Madison area but also where tourism is only a fraction of the big three.

In 2013, tourism spending in Dane and Milwaukee counties and the Wisconsin Dells accounted for roughly 30 percent of the state’s $10.9 billion in direct tourism spending, according to the state Department of Tourism and the Wisconsin Dells Visitor Convention Bureau. The overall economic impact of tourism in Wisconsin was up 4.3 percent to $17.5 billion, according to the state report released Friday.

In Rock County, direct spending was up 4.1 percent to $193.1 million in 2013. The Rock River in Janesville, for example, is home to the World Water Ski Show Tournament while Rotary Botanical Gardens hosts a holiday light show in December and is a growing destination for corporate meetings year-round. The city also boasts lower hotel rates than many larger cities, which is making the community more of a draw for conferences and conventions, said Christine Rebout, executive director for the past 10 years of the Janesville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The city’s location along the Interstate 39 corridor is advantageous because the bulk of the visitors come from northern Illinois.

“We might not be their final destination. They might be headed to Wisconsin Dells or northern Wisconsin, but we can certainly be a first stop for them if they’re a leisure traveler,” Rebout said.

Badgers football, WIAA state tournaments and the World Dairy Expo draw tens of thousands of people each year to Madison but Lake Monona and the county’s topography have helped Ironman and USA Cycling events thrive. Conferences spawned from cutting-edge research from, and companies born out of, UW-Madison are a draw while non-mainstream sporting events like tug of war and Ultimate Frisbee are also helping to fill hotel rooms and restaurant tables.

The Madison area is not trying to draw softball, baseball, volleyball and hockey tournaments, something that is a boom in Wisconsin Dells, said Judy Frankel, a spokeswoman with the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have a community that encourages being outside and being active. We have so many ways in which you can do it, whether you’re renting a B-Cycle for 10 minutes or you’re doing a 100-mile bike ride,” said Frankel, who notes that Ironman has extended its contract to be here through 2018. “We have to be doing something right to have something like Ironman invest in our community like that.”

Northern Wisconsin’s niche includes lakes and woods, Door County has a New England feel while Milwaukee County specializes in festivals, the Brewers, museums and the Wisconsin State Fair, among other highlights.

In Wisconsin Dells, where direct spending was up 3.9 percent and overall spending rose 6.3 percent in 2013, the water parks, roller coasters and other attractions are still king but youth sports tournaments continue to grow, helping to fill hotel rooms not just in the summer months but year-round. Facilities include Just-A-Game Fieldhouse, the Poppy Waterman Ice Arena and Woodside Sports Complex in Mauston. Woodside purchased the sports dome at Chula Vista Resort and is building more athletic fields in Wisconsin Dells.

“We see ourselves as a natural for youth sports because we have the built-in entertainment,” said Romy Snyder, Wisconsin Dells Visitor Convention Bureau executive director. “From January 1 of this year, we have had some weekends that have left people just shaking their heads because they can’t believe how many people are in town.”