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Tourism grows as an economic driver for state, Fox Cities

Posted on Jun 1, 2017 :: Economic Development , Economic Development
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

They just keep coming. And spending. Some might even come back
to stay. The “they” are tourists and visitors, who helped drive a fourth year of growth in Fox Cities tourism spending in 2016. Visitor spending in the Fox Cities topped $463 million last year, growing 1.6 percent from 2015, and nearly 25 percent since the $355.3 million spent in 2010.

Certainly, hotels, restaurants and retailers have benefitted from the region’s success in attracting tourists and business travelers. But, the big winner could be the region’s overall population and workforce, as visitors who enjoyed the trip could decide to make the move permanent.

“When people come here and have a great time, they want to live here or go to school here,” says Stephanie Klett, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. “There is a great quality of life here with the tourism assets you have. That brings people back to visit. It is the creative economy epitomized.”

The $463 million in visitor spending generated in the Fox Cities in 2016 was part of a record year for tourism in the state of Wisconsin. Tourism spending in the state topped the $20 billion mark for the first time. By comparison, the total value of state exports around the world is $22 billion.

Tourism has become an important part of the state’s economy. That it also has become an important component of the Fox Cities regional economy is reflected in the $31.9 million Fox Cities Exhibition Center under construction adjacent to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.

An economic impact study conducted prior to construction estimated the new convention center would generate an additional $6.5 million in economic activity per year. Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna has higher expectations.

“In true Fox Cities style, it did take us nearly 25 years to get here,” Hanna joked at a recent tourism event. “But I’m pretty convinced we are going to do much better than that.”

While the exhibition center is being built in Appleton, it took the effort of all the surrounding Fox Cities communities agreeing to raise their room tax to make the project possible. It is symbolic of the combined success of the region when it comes to tourism, especially considering it does not have a signature tourism amenity such as Lake Michigan or the Green Bay Packers to draw people year-round.

Mile of Music is certainly doing its best to develop as a major draw, though. Mile 4 in 2016 generated about $3 million in economic impact, according to organizers, and the initial acts for Mile 5 have been announced.

As a singular entity, the $463 million spent in the Fox Cities region would rank seventh in the state for tourism spending in 2016, behind Brown County and just ahead of Door County.

“We have communities that have made important investments in their tourism infrastructure and we can offer a lot of variety,” says Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can do urban nightlife in our downtowns, or you can get back to nature and it’s all here and close by.”

While the region may not have a singular, marquee attraction, it does have a reputation for affordability and top-notch service that attracts business and convention travelers to the area. About two-thirds of the Fox Cities tourism spending is classified as business and convention travel.

Yet, that is also a bit of a misnomer, since business and convention travel also encompasses sports tourism, an area where the Fox Cities sets a standard.

In addition to a myriad of tournaments and events hosted by regional youth sports clubs, the Fox Cities has become the near-permanent home of NCAA Division 3 College World Series (baseball), is a regular host of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region II Championships and has been the long-time home of the celebrity softball game hosted by Green Bay Packers players, currently Jordy Nelson.

Last year, the Fox Cities CVB was recognized as a Sports Tourism Organization of the year by the National Association of Sports Commissions for its impact on the community through sports tourism events in 2015. That year, The Fox Cities region hosted 163 sporting events with an estimated $11.4 million in direct visitor spending.

“We do really well when it comes to sports tourism,” Seidl says.

And it may soon be in a position to do even better. Part of the room tax agreement between the communities includes money to develop a new indoor facility to support hard courts for sports such as basketball and volleyball, as well additional ice surfaces for skating and hockey. That space is in high demand, and recent studies have indicated the region could support an expansion.

That goes back to the work of the communities that make up the Fox Cities to develop the amenities that attract the events, as well as the cost and customer service reputations.

“Not being a resort destination helps us with the business and sports travelers,” Seidel says. “We tend to not have the higher prices related to resorts. We consistently hear back that we are safe, affordable and that people are extremely helpful and welcoming to visitors.”

As the Fox Cities region continues to grow its tourism sector, that additional spending translates into local business growth and more jobs. Direct visitor spending supports more than 5,600 jobs in the Fox Cities, with an estimated total payroll of $103 million. When factoring in the overall impact of that spending, tourism supports more than 7,500 jobs with a payroll exceeding $153 million.

If the goal of economic development is to improve the quality of life for a region’s residents, as well as increase the local tax base and economic well-being of the community, then creating amenities that support a flourishing tourism sector is one of the purest forms of economic development, writes Roger Brooks, author of “Your Town: A Destination – The 25 Immutable Rules of Successful Tourism.”

Certainly, it’s important to attract visitors to the community, he writes. But just as importantly, tourism is the front door to non-tourism economic development. Site selectors, investors and commercial real estate firms arrive in the community as visitors. Tourism provides the marketing that promotes what a community offers in terms of nightlife, downtown, and amenities such as trails, parks and activities.

“Tourism showcases your community as a very desirable place to not only visit, but in which to live and work,” Brooks writes.