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State tourism chief said plan but have alternates for summer

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s “Safer at Home” restrictions have resulted in numerous cancellations of spring events, Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney said during a phone interview last week that people should still be looking ahead to enjoying the upcoming summer tourism season.

Meaney said the governor’s announcement to extend the safer at home order through May was anticipated by many as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to increase in the state. However, she noted that the announcement eased some restrictions, such as allowing golf courses to open with restrictions on no carts and ensuring that there are not bottlenecks on the courses. She said she expects to see the restrictions continue to open up bit by bit.

She explained that the state tourism department is there to help communities as they look at ways to prepare for when the state reopens.

One of the areas potentially most impacted by COVID-19 will be special events held across the state each summer. She noted that some, such as Milwaukee’s Summerfest have already announced plans to reschedule until later in the year.

“Special events and festivals are often the lifeblood of summer events all over the state,” Meaney said, noting that by bringing people to the communities they help sustain the businesses in those communities.

Meaney said that one way the state is attempting to be proactive in helping organizers of this events is by the governor suspending some of the administrative rules regarding the state’s Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) Grants. The program reimburses selected organizations for qualified advertising costs.

Meaney said the governor’s order gives additional flexibility in how the funding can be applied to the remainder of the year. She said this will allow the state to use existing grant dollars in the program to promote tourism activities in the state. “We want to show as much flexibility to put those dollars to use,” Meaney said.

Meaney said that without a doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has had a large and negative impact on tourism totaling in the millions of dollars.

“Without question it creates hardship,” Meaney said.

The after-effects of COVID-19 will continue to be felt as restrictions are lifted. “When we can open back up we need to be strategic in what we can kick start to do activities that are safe and in line with guidelines,” she said. As far as for event organizers, she said they are looking to public health officials about what sorts of events may or may not occur this year. She said she is hopeful the state can develop guidance for fairs and festivals to be able to offer activities while maintaining safety.

For residents planning their summer, the COVID-19 crisis may mean looking beyond the attractions that draw large crowds and instead look to enjoy other aspects of Wisconsin’s tourism such as the thousands of acres of public lands. She noted that while the governor had closed some recreation areas, these are located in the southern part of the state and it was due to abuse of the facilities and overcrowding.

Meaney said that state tourism’s mission is to not specifically support local business but that during the COVID-19 crisis in the state encouraging the support of local businesses has become a major priority as they work to ensure the richness of offerings that makes Wisconsin a wonderful place to live and visit.

Meaney encourages residents to take the time as they are “safer at home” to plan for what they will do when they can travel again. “It is a time to dream and be hopeful of happy times again,” she said, noting that it is good to plan but to also plan for contingencies.

“Maybe the summer getaway this year is staying in a cabin or resort or using a state trail or park rather than building around an event or activity,” Meaney said.

She noted that there were many opportunities around the state for people to get away without big crowds. “It is time to rethink what is possible and what is available,” she said. Meaney encouraged people to use the resources of the state tourism department to plan for the summer tourism season.

Even as people honor the travel restrictions and stay Safer at Home, we want travelers to have the resources they need to make informed decisions about their upcoming travel plans. We’re also using our social channels and to introduce some special virtual travel experiences as well as inspiring resources and tools for planning future trips while many have the time and desire to plan,” said Meaney. “Meanwhile, we remain dedicated to addressing the unprecedented challenges our tourism industry is facing, adjusting our marketing programs and doing everything we can now to ensure a swift ramp-up for travelers, Wisconsin’s workers, and ultimately the state’s economy as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Tourism is a key employment and economic driver for Wisconsin, generating $21.6 billion in business sales and $13.3 billion in spending, sustaining 199,000 jobs in 2018. Fortunately, with 2019 being a record year for Wisconsin travel and tourism, the state has shown itself to be an increasingly sought-after destination, which gives the department confidence that it remains on the radar as a preferred destination for visitors later this year. Even amid COVID-19, saw a 3 percent YOY increase in travel guide requests during the first half of March. Additionally, according to information gleaned from data platforms Sojern and Adara, searches for flights to Wisconsin in September are currently tracking on par with searches made in 2019 – underscoring that travelers are researching and planning trips with Wisconsin in mind.

“Our team has confidence that our state will be able get through these trying times,” said Meaney. “We know there’s a lot at stake, yet we remain wholly committed to doing all we can to support tourism throughout Wisconsin and encouraging the well-being of our current and future visitors in the meantime.”