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Local tourism, business travel hit hard by COVID-19

After a record 2019, 2020 is off to a slow start thanks to COVID-19, but Destination Madison is already looking ahead to travelers returning to the region and compensating with virtual tourism events in the meantime.

Even as some segments of the economy begin to cautiously reopen, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Perhaps no one knows that better than professionals in the tourism and business travel industry, whose normally busy spring and summer seasons look vastly different in 2020 than they have in previous years. After all, who’s traveling when we’ve acknowledged that we’re safer at home?

“This challenging time has underscored the importance of tourism and the visitor economy in Dane County and beyond,” remarked Deb Archer, president and CEO of Destination Madison during a May 4 press conference. “Our organization is proud to have played a part in welcoming so many events and visitors to the greater Madison area in 2019. Though we recognize there is a great deal of work ahead of us, Destination Madison is eager to help lead our community forward so we can once again share the beauty and vibrancy of this area and provide outstanding hospitality and experiences to visitors.”

At least a small part of what makes this ongoing situation is 2020 such a hard pill to swallow for someone like Archer is that it makes it all but impossible to build on what was a record-setting year in 2019 for local tourism.

Dane County hit new economic highs in 2019 as local tourism spending reached $1.4 billion in direct sales, according to new data released by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and Oxford Economics, which translates to $2.3 billion in total sales throughout the region. The increase marks a 3.85% gain over 2018 and accounts for nearly 10% of visitor spending for the entire state of Wisconsin — second behind only Milwaukee County. Additionally, the report shows that the number of local people working in jobs supported by tourism topped 22,600 in Dane County.

The growth for 2019 accounted for state and local governments collecting $172 million in tax revenue as a result of visitor activity in Dane County. The local tax collected provides the equivalent of $760 worth of government services for each Dane County household.

The local food and beverage industry took in $385 million in 2019 (28.3% of the county total), while lodging accounted for $356 million (26.2%), retail logged $280 million (20.6%), transportation rolled up $169 million (12.4%), and recreation played its part to bring in $170 million (12.5%).

Thanks to COVID-19, those numbers are sure to take a major hit this year. To date, Destination Madison has had to cancel 41 local conventions and sporting events, which translates to a loss of $32.5 million in direct spending, over 65,000 hotel room nights, and more than 82,000 visitors to the area. According to Archer, those 41 canceled events just represent functions Destination has booked, meaning many more local events that have had to be canceled or delayed have also been impacted by the far-reaching effects of COVID-19.

“Looking ahead, we envision other entities may cancel or postpone events based on a variety of factors, including data on consumer behavior, their capacity to ramp up and plan for the events, or choosing to wait for a vaccine for the coronavirus,” says Archer. “The future of events depends largely on public health guidelines, consumer behavior, and when a COVID-19 vaccine is released and widely attainable. We do believe that companies and organizations are likely to incorporate virtual elements into their event plans moving forward.”

Instead of being concerned about the impact virtual components of conferences and conventions could have on future attendance figures, Archer notes Destination Madison has been at the forefront of the virtual tourism movement.

“Destination Madison was one of the first destinations in the country to promote virtual tourism, highlighting virtual activities and tours of places like the Henry Vilas Zoo, the Wisconsin State Capitol, and Taliesin,” says Archer. “We’ve since repositioned our events calendar to highlight virtual local events that people who live in Madison and people who are further away can enjoy. Our sales and PR teams are undertaking virtual versions of some of our “Essential Madison Experience” programs to appeal to meeting planners and to travel journalists, with the goal of enticing their groups and their readers to visit Madison when the time is right.”

Looking ahead to the next six to 18 months, Archer notes travelers have indicated their willingness to travel again for leisure experiences within a reasonable drive time. Perhaps surprisingly, data shows that could be 600 miles or more, meaning Greater Madison is still very much going to be a destination for people outside of the Badger State.

“We will make sure that all communication that we have going out to visitors directly answers questions about what we’re doing and measures we’re taking,” Archer says. “We will do everything we can to encourage people to come here and [ensure them that] they will be able to remain safe, healthy, and be able to enjoy themselves.”

A big thing working in the Greater Madison region’s favor? “People can get out on the water, ride a bike — there are so many amazing places to enjoy themselves here,” Archer adds. “We think it will make a big difference in terms of the amount of people we’ll be able to bring [back] here.”

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