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Secretary of Tourism designee Sara Meaney visits the Northwoods

October 18, 2019 by Jacob Friede

The Sunrise Lodge is a hidden gem. It’s a quaint and cozy resort nestled on the shores of Lac Vieux Desert near Land O’ Lakes and its 24 cabins are spread throughout a charming parcel of forest near the source of the Wisconsin River.  

For 52 years Richard and Elsie Mendham have been treating guests to a spectacular taste of Vilas County while offering them all the hospitality of home.  It’s an ideal place for visitors to experience the Northwoods and a prime example of the tourism industry at work in Wisconsin.

Therefore, with fall colors ablaze all around, the Sunrise Lodge was also the perfect setting for a visit to Vilas County last Thursday from Secretary of Tourism designee Sara Meaney.

Meaney was the guest speaker at the 2019 Vilas County Accommodations Tour where she and area business owners and local tourism industry representatives toured the Conover area. They visited Deerpath Resort, Buckatabon Lodge and Lighthouse Inn, Torch Lake Campground and RV Park, and the Sunrise Lodge, where Meaney spoke at a luncheon following the tour. 

Meaney he made it clear right away that she was no stranger to the day’s sight-seeing activities.

“I grew up in the back of a station wagon, facing backwards, with my three siblings and my parents traveling all over the state and going to a lot of the state parks, staying in cabins, checking it out,” Meaney said. “I love the outdoors and I think everything that we’re doing throughout the state is a reflection of the culture that many of us Wisconsinites have, an appreciation for the outdoors.”

And Wisconsinites are the only ones who appreciate the Dairy State’s natural splendor.

“The number one marketable reason that people come to Wisconsin is outdoor recreation,” Meaney said.

She and her team in the Department of Tourism, through the development of fresh new advertising and marketing campaigns, have been working hard to make sure people keep coming, and not only to visit as tourists.

Meaney spoke about the “halo effect” Wisconsin’s many attractive tourist destinations have on peoples’ perception of the state as a whole.  

According to data gathered by the Department of Tourism, people who have been exposed to advertising about Wisconsin tourism are 200-300% more likely to strongly agree Wisconsin is a good place to not only live but attend college, start a career, start a business, purchase a vacation home, and retire.

“Where the magic happens is when we get them here and we keep talking to them and bringing them back. They are much more likely to send their kids here, to buy a property, to start a business, or to take a job here,” Meaney said  “People need to know Wisconsin is a great place to do all these things.”

But it’s also a great place to simply travel around and visit, and consumer spending shows it. On a state level tourism accounts for $21.6 billion in consumer spending and 199,073 jobs. In Vilas County tourism accounts for $232.8 million dollars in consumer spending and 2,043 jobs.

“Tourism isn’t just about fun,” Meaney said. “It’s about fun for the experience, but it’s really big business, and important business. It’s peoples’ jobs, it’s peoples’ businesses, and it’s peoples livelihoods. What this is is an industry. And it’s a calling. And we have to take care of it. And we need to help build it.” 

To do so, Meaney has developed a strategic plan for the Department of Tourism that is built upon feedback from the industry itself; 14,000 subscribers to the Travel Wisconsin e-letter as well as 1,000 people who define themselves as the tourism industry, plus 25 leaders of businesses were independently surveyed about where the Department of Tourism should be heading.

The goals that came out of that survey included finding additional funding and spending that funding as strategically as possible. That means there is a purpose, backed with data, behind every piece of marketing.

“We exist to drive economic impact,” Meaney said. “We’re not just about making pretty adds.”

Other goals were elevating and refreshing Wisconsin’s brand and fostering a positive traveler experience for a diverse population of visitors. 

“How do we ensure that it actually appeals to all people, not simply the most convenient people,” Meaney said. “What do we do culturally as a tourism industry when it comes to people who we are less familiar with. people from places that we’re unfamiliar with.”

Wherever people come from, they most likely head to Wisconsin for some sort of outdoor recreation. Out of the $21.6 billion of consumer spending in the state, $17.9 billion is related to outdoor recreation. 

“I think it’s pretty clear that 72 counties rely pretty heavily on outdoor recreation,” Meaney said. “The jobs, the businesses, and the actual leisure and recreational activities themselves and the dollars that come with those people are really key to the sustainability of the industry and the success and the future of the industry. And without question this isn’t new to Wisconsin.” 

What is new to Wisconsin is the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which is a newly formed position that will live within the Department of Tourism and was created as an economic development role.

Final interviews have been completed and a person is hoped to be named to that position within the next few weeks.

But Meaney stressed that the person hired will not be concentrating on promotion like the Department of Tourism does. Rather, they will be focusing on business development, job creation, land conservation, and public health and wellness.

“It is not a marketing function. This person is not an advertising person.” Meaney explained. “It’s an economic development entity so it will be working across state government agencies as well as with manufacturers, non-profit organizations, trail associations, user groups, those types of things. It’s meant to be a convener and a connector of the activities that are happening in the outdoor recreation industry already in order to connect solutions and problems.”

The Department of Tourism, however, will stay focused on marketing and advertising and building Wisconsin’s brand. In fact, during her presentation, Meaney unveiled a new television ad featuring former Green Bay Packer Donald Driver. In the ad, Driver is seen in four different settings: in an RV at a campground, hiking through a park, walking on a historic main street, and visiting a brewery tasting. 

“Everything that you see in there was actually reflective of what the data tells us are the primary drivers during this particular season,” Meaney said.

The new ad campaign is called WisconsIN and WisconsOut.   

“Because we’ve got people who don’t want to spend winter outside but people who do,” Meaney said. “And with fall is the same. What we’re working there is making a transition into the story of spending time inside or outside.

As she has so far, Meaney intends to proceed in her position with the aid of feedback from the state’s tourism industry. It is why she travels around the state ceaselessly and interacts with all facets of Wisconsin tourism.

She is also currently surveying destination marketing organizations across the state to find out what is currently going on with Wisconsin’s local tourism promoters. 

“We couldn’t possibly tell this industry what they should be doing or what we can do for them if we don’t know what they’re already doing,” Meaney said. “So this survey seeks to gather that information to give us a bigger picture, a clearer picture of what is our buying power as a state? What is our representation of ourselves as a state? What does that mean for us as we decide how we should represent ourselves at the state level?” 

To help answer those questions, Meaney encouraged everyone involved in tourism to become a tourist themselves and not only visit places, but ask themselves questions when they do so.

“It makes you curious, it makes you humble, it makes you empathetic,” Meaney said about travel. “Explore it like a tourist. Open your eyes. Look around. If it was your job to market that place what would you do differently? What would you do more of?  What would you tell them was done really well? What were you inspired by?”

Sara Meaney’s Department of Tourism will be guided by the answers to such questions. Her plan is built with a traveler’s perspective and if successful it will ensure that Wisconsin’s hidden gems, like the Sunrise Lodge, will have a whole new generation of tourists to discover it.  

Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]


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