Take Five with Deb Archer, Part 2: Unpacking Madison's destination future
Deb Archer is marking her 20th anniversary as president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau with some perspective on Madison’s growth as a destination. More than 20,000 Dane County jobs are supported by tourism, and visitors generate more than $1.9 billion annually in total business sales for the country, but Archer believes there’s more room for improvement. In Part 2 of this Take Five interview, Archer talks about the possibilities of additional destination growth. (For Part 1, click here.)
IB: You’ve pushed for travel/tourism enhancements like more direct flights out of Dane County Regional Airport and a second convention hotel for Monona Terrace. Aside from those items, what else is on your local tourism wish list?
Archer: The big conversation that we are very actively engaged in, and will continue to stay engaged in, is Dane County’s exploration of what else could the Alliant Energy Center campus become? What are the development opportunities or amenities on the campus? We know our guests are looking for more restaurants, but what sort of enhancements could be done to those existing facilities? What else on that 160-acre campus, or in its vicinity, could build our reputation even further as an event destination? It’s a big campus with a lot of development opportunities, so we’re deeply interested in that conversation.
IB: Have the New Holland Pavilions opened people’s eyes to the additional possibilities?
Archer: New Holland Pavilions certainly are wonderful assets on the campus for growing some of the existing business, both sustaining World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Fair, but also for attracting events like Comic-Con, which we brought here in February and used those spaces. From the time we booked it until the time it occurred, that event grew. So we have more opportunities with the New Holland Pavilions to attract a variety of events, including livestock events, etc.
IB: When we do get new direct flights to places like Las Vegas, there’s an initial buzz but it doesn’t seem to last. Is it really a lack of interest, or don’t we do enough promotional work to sustain those flights over the long haul?
Archer: That’s a great question for Brad Livingston [airport director]. I understand bits and pieces of the airline industry. I was just communicating with Brad today. We want to play a role in some of that promotion of that new service, so finding the right audience, visitors as well as partners, for a new air service and what our role is in promoting that. We really think that will enhance the success of that new service.
Certainly, we are huge cheerleaders for this airport. It’s such a world-class facility for a market of this size, and it’s just so well run. It’s beautiful. Clients just love flying in and out of this airport, so we’re big cheerleaders. We should want to be cheerleaders, not just for the airport but also for the service, and it’s not just new service. It’s when a larger plane gets added to existing service. We want people to know there are full-sized jets coming into the market for some flights. We want people to know that the lift capacity, while it might not be new service, is growing.
IB: What event or events are you most excited about as we head into the 2015 summer season? Shake the Lake perhaps?
Archer: Shake the Lake is a twist on a new event. We’ve got the Brett Favre event coming into Camp Randall [July 19]. Summer is such a wildly amazing time in this community, and it’s not just Madison. You have all these different communities that have festivals such as the William Tell Festival and events that happen in Stoughton and Mount Horeb, and other festivals and runs, and just this endless array. There are perennial favorites that people treasurer like Art Fair on the Square, Concerts on the Square, Taste of Madison, Paddle and Portage, but there are participatory things or things where you come and just partake, like the Mallards. It’s just an amazing community.
IB: You think Madison can become more of a winter destination, but some people think that’s pure fantasy. What are the critics missing here?
Archer: From our perspective, we’ve got capacity in terms of event space and hotel space, and then if you take the time to start coupling and packaging everything there is to do here, we’re an urban destination and we’re also a recreational destination. So you’ve got urban experiences, whether it’s museums, restaurants, retail, the cultural arts, and those are indoor activities. The biggest season for those indoor activities is the winter, so you couple that with what we’ve been able to do in terms of bringing winter sports here, both outdoor and indoor.
We had Hotel Week this year, and we quadrupled the number of people that came for Hotel Week. People want to come here, stay here, and experience this city, and then you take the individual outdoor recreation opportunities, whether its snowshoeing, cross country skiing, ice fishing, cyclo-cross, and pond hockey. We have a lot of opportunities, and we have to strategically think about where we put the resources so we can grow them. We don’t want to do a shotgun approach in which we do everything, and so we’re looking at what sports fit in our indoor facilities, what outdoor can we use, and then how do we package all the indoor facilities as well as making sure we go after conventions that can come here?
We were lucky to get a multiyear agreement for a convention that was held in another Wisconsin city in February. It’s the Wisconsin School Counselor Association. Honestly, winter is another reason for the second convention hotel because the more rooms we can place close to that facility, the more attractive Monona Terrace becomes as a major event site. So that’s another very important rationale for another hotel serving Monona Terrace. Let’s make sure it’s convenient for more people, but we have lots of opportunities during the winter.
IB: What do you think the next 20 years holds for Madison as a destination?
Archer: Crystal ball, I think the Alliant Energy Center has endless possibilities for this community, as well as the Judge Doyle Square project, and the [second] hotel near Monona Terrace. Those two projects can be truly transformational in terms of growing the visitor economy and creating assets that our community embraces. Everybody wants Monona Terrace to be successful for community events that are held there, so you want to sustain the facility. It’s the same with the Alliant Energy Center. Everybody wants the Garden Show and the Log Home Show to come here every year, but in order to support that business, the convention and event industry has to be successful. We have to make sure that business is accommodated so the things we hold near and dear are sustained. That visitor support makes those facilities viable. Without that visitor support, the local community things we all cherish can’t be sustained.
IB: Here’s our on-the-spot question. You’re an alumnus of Michigan State, yet you work to promote the home of UW–Madison as a destination. You were also a leading proponent of creating the Madison Area Sports Commission. So which community is a better sports town, Madison, Wis. or East Lansing, Mich.?
Archer: I had great years in East Lansing. I stayed and worked there for a year after I graduated from college, but there is no comparison in terms of the ongoing atmosphere and the embracing of all the sports here related to the Badgers. Yes, football, basketball, and hockey are the prominent ones, but look at all the people following volleyball and softball. We’ve had how many national cross-country and track championships? Madison is just hands down a great sports town. USA Today said it’s the best college sports town in America, and it is. There is nothing like it, and when you hear unsolicited things like USA Today or Scott Van Pelt [of ESPN] say you’ve got to be in Madison on a football Saturday, it’s just incomparable.
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