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Tourism secretary: COVID-19 impact on Baraboo, Dells large, but 'reasons to be optimistic'
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Tourism secretary: COVID-19 impact on Baraboo, Dells large, but 'reasons to be optimistic'

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Local and state tourism officials acknowledged “significant losses” in Baraboo, Portage and Wisconsin Dells brought by the coronavirus pandemic but said they’re hoping residents will rally for local businesses until regional travel can begin to pick up this summer or fall.

Wisconsin Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney said hotels and lodging were hit immediately and hard by the state shutdown order. Most businesses in the tourism industry have seen “significant losses,” even though some have been able to remain open to offer curbside options, she added.

Between mid-March and May 2, travel spending in Wisconsin dropped by $1.49 billion compared to the previous year, according to a report by the U.S. Travel Association.

“Without question, that hits every community,” Meaney said. “That means all of those dollars not being spent in restaurants and stores, in hotels, on travel products, all of these things.” That translates to lost tax revenue for municipalities and the state.

Leah Hauck, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, said it’s hard to know what the actual financial impact of COVID-19 will be on the local tourism economy. In 2019, visitors spent almost $1.21 billion in Wisconsin Dells, 66% of which came during spring and summer, according to Hauck.

“We know many businesses and employees rely heavily on that income generated during those seasons,” she said.

In the Baraboo area, hotel and lodging room occupancy is currently “close to nonexistent,” said Darren Hornby, Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce director. He said the chamber is in the process of assessing the impact of COVID-19 on local tourism. With business at a standstill and one of the chamber’s biggest annual events, the Big Top Parade, canceled, it’s sure to be significant.

Hornby noted the Big Top Parade draws a “huge influx of tourists” to Baraboo each summer, with spectators numbering about 30,000. An impact study last year showed area lodging was at 100% occupancy on that Friday and 96% on Saturday.

“To remove an event that draws so many people to the area, that’s obviously going to have a huge impact as well, but as everyone knows that’s the right decision to do at this point,” Hornby said.

In Portage, many community events have been canceled or postponed, meaning fewer people staying at hotels and spending money at local businesses, said Marianne Hanson, director of the city’s chamber of commerce.

“It’s an impact now and it will be an impact that will stay with us for months to come,” Hanson said.

Fewer tourists also means less funding for organizations like the Portage Center for the Arts, the Historic Indian Agency House and the chamber, Hanson said. They and other Portage organizations rely on room taxes from local hotels.

The Baraboo chamber also receives part of its funding from room taxes. Hornby said the chamber will have to look at “revamping how we do things for the remainder of this year” to make up for the loss.

Reasons for optimism

But Meaney said Wisconsin benefits from being accessible by car to other states and having many outdoor destinations — including in the Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells region — that can support social distancing. Devil’s Lake State Park, south of Baraboo, saw about 2.6 million visitors in 2019, according to the park superintendent.

“There are reasons to be optimistic for a potential rebound on the horizon,” Meaney said, pointing to a national survey showing more than half of people plan to travel domestically when the COVID-19 restrictions lift rather than internationally and more than three-quarters of those people plan to drive to their destination rather than fly. That works in Wisconsin’s favor, Meaney said.

“When travel can resume, we are optimistic that with the right messaging and with the appropriate safety and health guidances in place in our businesses and our destinations, we can very safely drive the rebound through that category of activities,” she said.

While the losses indicated by the U.S. Travel Association report represent a “major divot” in the tourism industry, Meaney emphasized Wisconsin’s tourism industry had a record high economic impact in 2019 of $22.2 billion. She said the state’s recent success shows that tourism-based businesses have a good opportunity for rebound after the health crisis.

Hornby said he expects people to slowly become more comfortable returning to tourist activities this summer, hopefully bringing numbers closer to normal by fall. He echoed Meaney’s sentiment that an increase in regional travel should benefit Baraboo.

State offers support

The state tourism department is working closely with local tourism leaders and businesses to help them through the COVID-19 crisis and plan for reopening, Meaney said.

“I feel like it’s important for people to know that while things are closed, things are also happening in the direction of supporting their reopening,” she said, adding that the department and industry are working “really hard to identify the opportunities where we can bring people back to the communities when it’s time and how best to encourage the most viable activities to bring people back as soon as possible.”

She complimented the Baraboo area on its efforts to provide opportunities for people to engage with businesses and the outdoors during the shutdown. Circus World Museum, for example, continues to post Facebook Live videos online, and Downtown Baraboo has organized “virtual shop hops” every week.

Tourism leaders in each community encourage residents to purchase gift cards from local businesses and use whatever services they can provide in the meantime.

“We’ve been telling people that kindness is an important part of what we’re going through, and if you have the ability to support those businesses and then support your neighbor by offering them an opportunity as well (by giving them gift cards), we think that’s important,” Hanson said.

Hornby said he’s expecting to see “an outpouring of support from the Baraboo community throughout this summer” to support local businesses amid low tourism.

“That’s one thing about Baraboo that’s so wonderful is, when up against a wall, the local community always comes together to support in whatever way they can, so I think that’s going to be pretty remarkable to watch as the summer unfolds,” he said.

For opportunities to support local businesses in the Dells, information can be found at wisdells.com.

Keep ‘spirit of travel alive’

People should strive to “keep the spirit of travel alive,” Hauck said. “Keep dreaming of your next Wisconsin Dells vacation, and when we can, the bureau will be ready to welcome people back.”

If people can’t support local businesses financially, Meaney said they can show gratitude to local workers and businesses for what they’re doing, whether that’s continuing to serve customers in a different way or adapting their work to fill needs in the health care industry. For example, Sound Devices in Reedsburg has shifted to producing face shields and TriEnda and Penda of Portage are manufacturing a new line of hospital beds.

The Department of Tourism has created an online campaign to highlight these efforts through the use of a hashtag, #HowWiHelp.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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