/ Articles / Uncertainty over duration of COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for tourism industry

Uncertainty over duration of COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for tourism industry

April 28, 2020 by Jamie Taylor

While the general public continues to count the days until they can once again move freely throughout the state, Wisconsin Tourism Secretary-Designee Sara Meaney and her team are focusing on two parallel approaches to dealing with the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the tourism industry. 

“The first (order of business) is to gather a lot of energy around supporting our local businesses that make up the tourism industry — the restaurants, the small shops, those that are remaining open or are at least making their products available for purchase,” Meaney said in an April 14 telephone interview with The Lakeland Times’ sister paper the River News. “We need to remind people that those are the lifeblood of our community and also the lifeblood of tourism once we can reopen.”

According to a recent press release from the tourism department, “tourism is a key employment and economic driver for Wisconsin, generating $21.6 billion in economic impact and $13.3 billion in spending, sustaining 199,000 jobs in 2018.”

With the state’s Stay-at-Home order in place until May 26, the tourism department is putting its resources toward “inspiring people to dream now and plan to travel later,” Meaney explained.

“We’ve put together several programs that we have created and launched in a virtual setting to make sure that people stay engaged and pay attention to things about Wisconsin that may get them inspired for when they can travel again,” she said. 

Access to these virtual programs is available at travelwisconsin.com.

Meaney noted 1-in-13 jobs in the state is in the tourism industry, and, according to a national study, Wisconsin alone has seen a loss of $631 million in travel spending in the four weeks ending with April 4.

“So obviously this is a tough time for everyone,” she said. “These are dollars not being spent in our communities and in our small businesses. And that also means lost tax revenue to the state to fund many of the services we count on.”

She said the department of tourism is using this time to “pivot our activities to ensure that people continue to think about Wisconsin as a destination they should consider” once the travel restrictions are lifted. 

It is also offering online activities for people to do while they are staying at home.

“We’ve created several online virtual games and activities and there is also a sweepstakes that is coming out online where people can actually enter by answering some questions about some famous or recognizable areas in Wisconsin based on images,” Meaney said. “And you can win one of 10 sweepstakes trips around Wisconsin. So we’re trying to give people things to think about, things to get excited about and be inspired by. And also, to spark some joy and hope at a time where there is so much uncertainty around us.”

While tourism in Wisconsin is at a standstill, Meaney said her agency, and all state agencies, remain quite busy. 

“All of my colleagues who are leading all the various state agencies are, frankly, busy as ever because there are so many things changing so quickly,” Meaney said. “People have had to put in place so many policies and programs to educate their stakeholders, gathering information about the resources that are available from the federal stimulus package, how small businesses can access the available dollars through their financial institutions and making sure we actually deploy resources and available tools to get them to the people who need them.”

“We’re all working together to try to understand how all the various needs of our various stakeholders across the state can be addressed through the actions of all the different departments of state government,” she added.

Like many others, Meaney noted the entire tourism department staff is working from home. 

“All of us are finding ourselves spending a lot of time in our own homes, and not seeing the people we would normally like to see, love and care for,” Meaney said. “It certainly has changed the way we spend our time, spend our days. It’s changed the way we work. The entire department of tourism is working virtually from home, we’ve been lucky that we were able to get everyone in the department of tourism enabled to be productive and continue their full work schedule from home.”

Grant program

Meaney also noted the department of tourism can also help communities through its Joint Efforting Marketing Grant Program, which “makes dollars available to local tourism-related entities or groups that are working together collaboratively to promote regions of the state for visitors to discover.” 

“Our grant program will continue to be an important resource for these destination marketing organizations, who will be cash-strapped,” she noted. “Many of these organizations are funded by room tax revenue, and, of course, hotels aren’t exactly full these days. So there will be a loss in revenue to those organizations, and thus a loss of budget to promote their region.”

While the current situation is certainly “unprecedented,” Meaney said Wisconsin can find its way through this crisis through ingenuity and collaboration.

“It is something we have never been faced with before, certainly not to this scale. As a result, we as leaders, and leaders of any community, have to keep in mind the best interests of our residents and citizens in mind. This is really about people’s lives. And while the economy is an important piece of sustaining our lives and lifestyles, there are people all over the country and all over the world who are getting sick and dying as a result of this,” Meaney said. “And big picture, we’re all going to need to work together and we’re in it together. And we will come out of this as a result of working together, as well. But it’s certainly a challenge like none of us have seen before.”

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected]

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