Tourism income exceeds expectations in Elkhart Lake

by Emmitt B. Feldner of The Review staff

ELKHART LAKE – It was a better year than expected for tourism in the village in 2012, but the Tourism Commission isn’t resting on its laurels.

Director of Tourism Kathleen Eickhoff made her annual report to the Village Board Monday.

After flat or declining numbers three years in a row, the village saw an 11 percent growth in overnight visits in 2012 from 2011, according to Eickhoff.

“We hadn’t anticipated that kind of growth,” she admitted. “We were ecstatic with that.”

Eickhoff explained that the Tourism Commission had set a goal a year ago to increase overnight stays in the village by 20 percent over the next five years, so 2012’s numbers were a good start toward that.

“We decided we really needed to take a more aggressive stance in our tourism goals,” in response to the economic downturn that began in 2008, Eickhoff related.

“We never expected 11 percent (growth in 2012),” Eickhoff conceded. “It’s a good start and we’re really feeling optimistic.”

She acknowledged the positive impact a one percent increase in the village’s room tax, which took effect at the beginning of 2012, had on tourism promotion efforts.

“The additional room tax allowed for a larger advertising and marketing footprint in both the Milwaukee and Chicago markets,” Eickhoff told the trustees. “We’re always fighting to get more visibility and a larger footprint.”

It also allowed the Tourism Commission to expand its efforts into new markets, such as the Fox Valley, and establish some new marketing tools, like an increased emphasis on social media, she continued.

As she has noted in the past, Eickhoff said Elkhart Lake continues to struggle for publicity and business against larger area tourist destinations with bigger budgets, such as Wisconsin Dells; Door County; Galena, Ill.; and even Kohler.

One effort that has helped to bridge that gap, she noted, is the commission’s continued work with public relations firm Geiger and Associates.

The primary focus of that association continues to be tours of the village and its attractions for travel journalists.

The village hosted thee tours in 2012, Eickhoff said, and she quantified the impact of the tours for the board.

The 47 journalists who shared Elkhart Lake’s story and hospitality generated 66 print and online articles about the village. They reached a total audience of 5,739,371 readers and were the equivalent of almost $350,000 worth of advertising space for the village.

Geiger has been coordinating tours of the village for two years, and the total impact has been nearly 11 million readers and almost $700,000 worth of advertising, according to Eickhoff.

The commission continues to focus on increasing midweek visitors and group events such as weddings and business meetings.

“Our summer overnight sales are our greatest return on our investment,” Eickhoff said. “We need to attract new customers and bring back some others.”

Bookings for business meetings and events continues to lag, she added, but that is true for all destinations, not just Elkhart Lake.

“Businesses are holding back because they still don’t know how health care changes are going to affect them,” Eickhoff suggested. “That’s why we’re investing more, so that when that business resumes, we’re visible.”

Questioned by the board, Eickhoff said she did not know if the increase in visitors the village saw in 2012 was replicated elsewhere in the state.

“It will be interesting to see when the state (tourism) report comes out in May,” to see how Elkhart Lake’s 11 percent increase compares to other destinations, Eickhoff said.

“You guys are doing a terrific job, but there’s always room for improvement,” Village President Alan Rudnick told Eickhoff.

The board also heard plans the commission has for upgrading the building it shares with the Chamber of Commerce on Rhine Street.

The chamber and the commission will be looking for financial assistance from the village for the second phase of the project in 2014, Eickhoff said, but will be able to complete the first phase this year with its funds and volunteer assistance.

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