How tourism grant dollars help attract visitors to northeast Wisconsin to sleep, eat, meet, play – and spend
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor
Not to be smug about it or anything, but Wisconsin is looking better every day as a place to live, work and retreat. With fires on the West Coast, hurricanes in the south, tropical islands underwater, and killer smog in the Big Apple, a few snowflakes and sub-zero days a year feel like being swatted by a chipmunk in comparison.
Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes and 11,190 square miles of water beckon the outdoorsy and cottage-escapee alike, and there’s no topping the Niagara Escarpment for autumnal contemplation. But hey, there’s only so much flora and fauna a person can take. Sometimes the siren calls of Vegas and Disney World must be heeded.
So niche travel keeps Wisconsin in the game. Tourism professionals are monetizing visitor attractions like conventions, festivals and non-pro sports into viable tourism-industry segments. So what if we don’t have Rockefeller Plaza when we have the Midwest Women’s Bowling Association, or the 5th International Conference on Roundabouts?
State grants make drawing people to the region for any of a slew of reasons even more possible. And far from being a drain on the economy, they’re helping grow it.
“Some $1.43 million in grant funding was awarded in Fiscal Year 2017, and those projects are expected to have an estimated economic impact of nearly $70 million,” said Lisa Marshall, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
They call it “estimated” economic impact, Marshall said, because some of the events haven’t happened yet, or the grant recipient has yet to submit their recap report.
Overall, tourism brought around $20 billion to Wisconsin in 2016, increasing $700 million from the previous year.
A real JEM
In the Interstate 41 corridor, state tourism grants help recipient communities increase visibility of their cities and events, allowing many small or new events a chance to grow.
Joint Effort Marketing grants – known in the tourism industry as JEM grants, for short – have given many events a much-needed push over the fence.
“Green Bay Restaurant Week was new when we received our first JEM,” said Brenda Krainik, director of marketing for the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Having the JEM grant really assisted us in that venture, and now we’ve successfully had five years of a smoothly running event. We probably couldn’t have done it without the JEM grant.”
The Department of Tourism awards JEM funds to nonprofits to promote their events and destinations. The state can fund up to three-quarters of a project’s marketing costs through JEM grants.
“The grant itself serves to kick the event off in a lot of cases and set it off on the right foot,” Krainik said. “For us, we were able to take something that didn’t exist, and create a successful event.”
In fiscal 2017, 50 projects across the state received JEM money, totaling $861,208. The Department of Tourism estimates those 50 enterprises will have generated $34 million in visitor expenditures by the end of the year.
A hole in one
The largest JEM grant issued during 2017 – for a total of $35,550 – went to a debut event: the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic tournament in Oneida. Held the first week in July, it drew 144 of the top women golfers from around the country and the world, according to Tournament Director Kelly McAnally. She estimates it drew some 62,000 visitors during the week.
“The purpose of the event was to not only create a community event for northeast Wisconsin and the greater Green Bay community, but also to create a destination location that puts the Oneida Nation, in regards to their golf course here at Thornberry, the Oneida Casino and the two hotels that the tribe oversees as well (Radisson and Wingate by Wyndham), on the map,” McAnally said.
She said final numbers aren’t in yet, but estimates the economic impact of the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic to be more than $9 million to the area.
“That JEM grant certainly helped some of those marketing dollars get spectators and fans alike to this event – people that maybe wouldn’t come the week of the Fourth of July – and into the local restaurants, staying in local hotels and seeing some of the other attractions that Greater Green Bay and northeastern Wisconsin have to offer,” she said. “For us, this was an event that not only helps attract people from the state of Wisconsin, but also was broadcast on all the sports channels to over 300 million households across the world.”
Ripon’s signature winter event, Dickens of a Christmas, received JEM grants in 2015 and 2016. The first year, Dickens aimed to use the $10,000 grant to market outside a small radius of Ripon. It worked.
“In 2015, when we got the JEM grant the first time, our hotel stays increased 14 percent for that weekend,” said Jason Mansmith, executive director of the Ripon Chamber of Commerce, which helps downtown businesses plan the event.
The 2015 JEM grant worked so well that it created a new problem – people from afar couldn’t hightail it to Ripon in time to enjoy the Friday night festivities.
For 25 years, Dickens of a Christmas had followed a set format, with the big climax happening on the first night, Friday’s Living Windows, costumed merchants and carriage rides. Saturday and Sunday featured low-key happenings during the day, like reindeer petting, a quilt show and gingerbread house contest during the day, with no evening events.
So organizers chanced a new schedule in 2016 – Living Windows on Saturday night instead of Friday, and added a new street festival on Friday night. The 2016 JEM grant of $7,322 let Dickens promote the shakeup.
“When we changed it to Saturday night, we saw a 49 percent increase in hotel stays over the weekend, so we jumped pretty incredibly,” Mansmith said. “It was pretty impressive for us and a well-deserving kind of thing.”
Mansmith said rough estimates indicate a range of between 7,500 and 12,000 people visited throughout the three-day event. He estimates visitors spent $106,000.
It’s the bomb
The International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators spent a week in Green Bay in June, adding more than $810,000 to the local economy.
Landing that group of 600, which tallied 2,200 room nights, was quite a coup, and it might not have happened without the assistance of some state money. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism awarded the Greater Green Bay CVB a Meetings Mean Business matching grant of $15,000.
“Those dollars came in real handy for the group,” said Beth Ulatowski, director of sales for the Greater Green Bay CVB. “Bringing in international attendees, getting high-caliber speakers, and providing the security and everything else that goes along with it is expensive, so they were able to utilize the Meetings Make Business grant to offset some of those expenses.”
Destinations can apply for 50 percent of the costs for convention facility rental, shuttle buses, promotions or hosting costs, up to $20,000 during a fiscal year, according to Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Meetings and conventions are niche events that – although probably not found on the Travel Channel – positively impact Wisconsin tourism. They bring in large numbers of visitors who eat, sleep and shop here. Meetings Mean Business grants aim to make Wisconsin destinations competitive in attracting regional and national convention business.
In 2017, the state tourism department awarded $35,000 in Meetings Mean Business grants.
“I don’t know if we would’ve gotten the group without the Meetings Mean Business grant,” Ulatowski said of the bomb group. “Certainly, as a CVB, we don’t have that kind of budget to offer that amount of incentive.”
Any investment that could turn $100,000 into $30 million would be so much of a no-brainer that one might suspect it a Ponzi scheme. Yet, the $109,000 the state spent on 10 Ready, Set, Go! sports marketing grants in 2017 is slated to drive an economic impact of $33 million by the end of the year.
The Ready, Set, Go! grant program helps destinations land higher-profile athletic events that ask for money upfront. Only national events that draw both spectators and athletes are eligible for such grants, which are not open to regularly scheduled in-state events or those that rotate around the state.
Green Bay hit a home run with a $12,000 Ready, Set, Go! grant this year for the International Softball Congress tournament slated for 2019, and Fox Cities picked up a $10,000 grant for the USA Powerlifting High School National Championships coming up in March 2018 at Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton.
“The Ready, Set, Go! grant goes to offset all the costs that the Wisconsin High School Powerlifting Association incurs in hosting the event,” said Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for Fox Cities CVB. “They have to rent the space at the Radisson and then also bring in all the equipment for the event, all the staging, lighting, all the video production and PA system stuff. They have to put on the logistics of the event. The $10,000 will cover a portion of those costs.”
The USA Powerlifting High School National Championships have never been held in Appleton before, according to Ten Haken. The four-day event is expected to draw 600 competitors and 1,000 fans per day, for about 1,000 total room nights.
“I think anyone in my position around the state will tell you that the Ready, Set, Go! grant is huge, especially for these really large events,” Ten Haken said. “We’re fighting with other cities around the country for it, and this helps us get a leg up on the competition, so it’s a really valuable program for us.”
Other local events that Ready, Set, Go! grants have supported recently include the Horizon League Women’s Basketball Tournament ($4,500), Midwest Women’s Bowling Tournament ($5,000) and Pro Women’s Bowling Association Players Championship ($6,000), all in Green Bay.
“The grant is helping to attract events that wouldn’t normally have been in our community and drives economic impact as a result of those events being in town,” said Joel Everts, sports sales manager for Greater Green Bay CVB. “Each of those three held in Green Bay drew a national television audience, which also highlighted Green Bay on a national front and highlighted our bowling facility. Each one of them drove room nights, which drove economic impact.”