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Badger State tourism reaches new heights in 2023

A recently released report from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism shows a record year for tourism

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July 1, 2024

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s not to take things for granted. That’s been on full display in tourism every year since COVID restrictions ended – and 2023 is no exception.

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism recently revealed the state’s tourism generated a $25 billion economic impact last year, continuing the momentum of several years’ worth of record-breaking impacts.

According to the report, all 72 Wisconsin counties experienced year-over-year growth in total economic impact last year – though the reason(s) vary by area.

Visitor spending is tracked across five categories within that financial equation, including:

  • Lodging
  • Food and beverage
  • Retail
  • Recreation and entertainment
  • Transportation.

As to the “why” behind the growth, the report states there are several common themes across Wisconsin’s counties, including:

  • An increase in overnight visitors
  • An increase in day trippers visiting destinations within a few hour’s radius of home
  • Targeted marketing
  • A desire to get out and travel

“Some people call it revenge tourism – the desire to get back out and experience events, realizing what was lost a few years ago,” Dick Knapinski, director of communications, Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), said. 

Knapinski said he can attest to the impact of that mindset at the EAA, both within the window of AirVenture each July and year-round.

In 2023, AirVenture set a new record of 677,000 in attendance – breaking 2022’s record of 650,000. Photo Courtesy of EAA

In 2023, Knapinski said AirVenture set a new record of 677,000 in attendance – breaking the 2022 record of 650,000. 

“We blew everything out of the water,” he said. “We like to think our programming last year was  strong, but it was still somewhat unexpected.”

Knapinski said the museum welcomed about 100,000 visitors throughout the year – with 65,000 visiting outside of AirVenture.

He said it was also a packed house for the Christmas in the Air event, which drew 9,000 guests.

“I’ve never seen that many people come through the museum in a single day,” he said. “People are enthusiastic about what we present about the world of aviation and are finding ways to get here. It bodes well for us and the area.”

Knapinski said it’s not unusual for AirVenture visitors to extend their stay to enjoy other regional favorites – be it attending Green Bay Packers training camp, trying out local restaurants or visiting Lambeau Field.

More than 70% of the EAA’s visitors, he said, come from outside the state, with many traveling from all corners of the world.

“The mindset is, ‘as long as I’m in Oshkosh, I might as well (fill in the blank),’” he said. “They want the Wisconsin experience.”

Amy Albright, executive director, Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she concurs.

She said the “pause to life as (we knew) it” recharged people’s passions for travel and return to favorite experiences.

“We are 100% still growing here, and part of that is the travel demand,” she said. “COVID was terrible for a lot of things, but one thing it did was (show) people what tourism did for their community – (especially once they) didn’t have travelers. Residents understand that and have a new appreciation for it.”

Amy Albright said the many attractions offered in the Oshkosh area, such as events at the Leach Amphitheater, contributed to the county’s increase in tourism dollars. Photo Courtesy of Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau

The numbers compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism also support that.

In Winnebago County alone, tourism:

  • Generated a $553 million economic impact
  • Supported nearly 4,300 part- and full-time jobs, which is part of the more than 178,000 jobs sustained by tourism across the state
  • Generated $31.9 million in local and state tax revenue in that county alone

In total, the report shows tourism generated $1.6 billion in local and state tax revenue statewide last year. 

“Wisconsin tourism powers the economy and strengthens the fabric of communities of all sizes,” Anne Sayers, secretary of Wisconsin Department of Tourism, said. 

As for the “why” behind Winnebago County’s growth – Albright said she credits numerous factors, all of which she said had a collective impact.

There is EAA, but she said this past year the area also welcomed significant attendance at Lifest, the Waupaca Boatride Volleyball Tournament and the Pyrotechnic Guild International Annual Convention. 

“That included a large fireworks festival, which contributed,” she said. 

Albright said the increase in business travel by individuals and conventions also contributed to the numbers.

Specifically, she said having the TownePlace Suites near the Oshkosh Corporation headquarters open in 2022 helped the area for 2023. 

“The rebound of business travel, post-pandemic, has taken a little longer, and the convention business as well with the nature of how that works as planning often occurs several years in advance,” she said. “In 2023, we saw some of that.”

Traveling up the Interstate 41 corridor to the Fox Cities reveals tourism growth as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Amy Albright said, recharged people’s passions for travel and recreation. Photo Courtesy of Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Fox Cities, according to the tourism report, saw a year-over-year gain of 2.3% for a total of $571 million in visitor spending in 2023 – contributing to a $748 million total economic impact of tourism in the Fox Cities last year.

“It’s exciting to see strong growth continue in the Fox Cities tourism economy,” Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, said. “The growth is a testament to the Fox Cities lodging and hospitality industries and the incredible experiences available to visitors at our attractions and events.”   

A bit farther to the north, Discover Green Bay reported a 4.7% increase in total economic impact from 2022 to 2023 to $1.335 billion and direct visitor spending of $798 million.

Nick Meisner, vice president of digital marketing and communications with Discover Green Bay, said he, too, recognizes the combination of factors that contribute to these numbers.

“There are many layers, between consumer demand for travel, Green Bay and the surrounding areas adding so many businesses, businesses expanding, Titletown Development and new attractions like the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park announcing its new discovery zone,” he said. 

Meisner said he also points to improvements in the tourism product through the deployment of new marketing, including more interactive and digital tactics, the sales team attracting new events to the area, the collaborative work by Discover Green Bay with partners in BIDs (business improvement districts) and municipalities, sales efforts with local facilities, such as the Resch Center and PMI, and the buzz with the NFL Draft coming to Green Bay in 2025.

“Throw all those things into a pot, and it’s a recipe for (a continued) increase in the tourism economy here in Brown County,” he said. “We’re excited the tourism industry continues to grow and development of tourism assets (also continues).” 

Meisner said he also credits the community at large’s shared value of tourism with helping to propel tourism forward in the area.
“Everyone – from the 10,000 people in the hospitality industry to our local officials to our marketing partners in BIDs – see tourism as a benefit to our economy and way of life,” he said. “Our work as a destination marketing organization is only as good as the partnerships we have. We are a work hard, play hard group of people passionate about the area, and it shows in the numbers.”

A balancing act

One local entity that typically draws tourists to the tune of one million a year is Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Jason Arnoldi, facilities superintendent for the City of Green Bay, said the park didn’t quite achieve its hoped-for numbers in 2023.

In 2022, Arnoldi said Bay Beach struggled with insufficient staffing and had to shut down several rides because of it.

Though Bay Beach Amusement Park saw lower numbers than it had hoped in 2023 due to staffing struggles, Jason Arnoldi said 2024 is off to a good start. Photo Courtesy of Discover Green Bay

So, he said he and the county team expected 2023 to be a marked difference.

“Unfortunately, it was only minimally better, but we did have construction of three rides last year,” he said. “So far in 2024, when the weather cooperates, we are rebounding.”

Though Bay Beach Amusement did not contribute to the increase in tourism dollars in 2023, Meisner said many other local tourism draws did – crediting Green Bay area’s unique ability to serve different needs.

“For those living in Wausau, Rhinelander or Marquette, Michigan, we are the first ‘(major) city’ in driving distance, so we are an urban city offering shopping, downtowns and retail and restaurant spending (opportunities),” he said. “But for those who come from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago or Minneapolis, we’re a small-town getaway with great outdoor recreation. We get to be both and place advertising in those markets that match what people want.”

Delivering what people want, Jon Jarosh, chief communications officer with Destination Door County, said is often a balancing act of the long-standing tourism destinations in a given community and something fresh and new.

“That’s not the case on Wisconsin’s peninsula, which sees regular visitors seeking tradition, consistency and familiar tourism experiences,” he said. “There is new product yearly with new businesses but not huge new offerings. That’s one of the things people love about Door County. There are things people have been coming to for a long time, and that’s one of the area’s charms – that many things have been here for a while.”

Whether it’s regular stops at Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream in Ephraim or Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik, ferry rides to Washington Island or a lighthouse tour, Jarosh said it’s a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach that’s working in Door County tourism’s favor.

In 2023, Wisconsin’s tourism reports showed visitor spending in Door County increased by $26 million, a 5.6% increase over 2022.

In addition, state and local tax revenue generated by visitor spending in Door County in 2023 totaled $51 million, a 6.6% increase over 2022.

Jon Jarosh said Door County’s successful tourism sector is supported by visitors seeking familiar tourism experiences. Photo Courtesy of Destination Door County

Furthermore, room tax collections in the county were up $240,000 in 2023 – which is a 2.16% increase over 2022.

That said, the room tax rate starting Jan. 1, 2022, was 8%, an increase from the 5.5% room tax rate in place from 2009-21. 

“(However), our average daily rate for lodging was up, so that had a role in the increase in visitor spending even though the number of rented rooms last year went down a bit from the year prior,” Jarosh said. 

There’s been a mindset shift in the county, Jarosh said, from solely looking at the increase in overall economic impact as a year-round travel destination – to also looking at the tourism industry’s impact on everyone who lives and works there. 

“We’re happy to see employment increased to $121 million, and the overall number of jobs increased more than in previous years,” he said. “Those numbers mean more money in the pockets of our residents. That $620 million economic impact overall trickles down.”

That seems to be a sentiment that resonates regardless of county.

Albright referenced a quote by Maura Gast, executive director of Visit Irving that she said she keeps front and center in everything she does to promote the Oshkosh region.
“If you build a place people want to visit, you build a place where people want to live. If you build a place where people want to live, you’ll build a place where people want to work. If you build a place where people want to work, you’ll build a place where business needs to be. And if you build a place where business has to be, you’ll build a place where people have to visit.”

“We view tourism offerings as the same thing that builds quality of life,” Albright said.

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism report credits the collective efforts of tourism partners from all corners of the state – such as Albright, Jarosh, Arnoldi, Meisner and Knapinski – for the Badger State’s success.

Amy Albright

With tourism an integral part of the Wisconsin economy, Sayers said the report helps policymakers monitor its successes and future needs.

Other impact numbers in the report for Northeast Wisconsin counties are as follows:

  • Calumet – $74 million in 2023 (up from $68 million in 2022)
  • Brown – $1,335 million ($1,275 million)
  • Fond du Lac – $283 million ($274 million)
  • Kewaunee – $52 million ($48 million)
  • Manitowoc – $226 million ($217 million)
  • Oconto – $140 million ($134 million)
  • Outagamie – $724 million ($685 million)
  • Marinette – $263 million ($249 million)
  • Shawano – $114 million ($111 million)
  • Sheboygan – $465 million ($440 million)
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