Tourism spending declines 9% in Rock County

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May 12, 2010
— Tourism is more than families on vacation.

Less visible is tourism that includes business travelers, conferences and local businesses that hold meetings in the area.

“That has a huge impact on the number of events held in the area,” said Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But when the economy plummeted and General Motors and its suppliers closed in Janesville, the result was a 9 percent drop in Rock County tourism spending last year compared to 2008.

The state Department of Tourism this week released its annual industry survey conducted by Davidson-Peterson Associates. The data shows travelers to Rock County spent $216.64 million last year, down from $237.67 million in 2008.

In Walworth County, tourism spending fell 11.1 percent from $416.96 million in 2008 down to $370.51 million last year.

Despite the drop in Rock County, Rebout said she was excited to see the county trending with the rest of the state. The state saw a 7.8 percent drop while the U.S. Travel Association reported a 9 percent decline for the nation.

Traveler spending in Rock County for 2009 supported 5,021 full-time equivalent jobs and created $134 million in wages and salaries, according to the survey. It also generated $11.15 million in taxes and other fees for local government last year, as well as $27 million in state revenues.

Business related to the auto industry had helped fill rooms and bring money in during the middle of the week, Rebout said, so officials are looking to rebuild tourism during the mid-week and winter months.

That will take time, she said. Conferences and meetings book a couple years out, so an upswing in the numbers likely won’t show for awhile.

Her organization has been adding more depth to its website, janesvillecvb.com, in the past year to promote the area and give meeting planners more tools, she said.

The number of calls from event planners is picking up.

“It was really quiet for awhile,” she said. “(I’ve) been excited the last couple months. Things have increased a little bit.”

The area still fares pretty well in summer months, partly because of Rock County’s location as the first Interstate stop in Wisconsin, she said. She doesn’t mind if travelers are on their way to Wisconsin Dells and stop here for a night or for gas and a meal, she said.

When the state closed its travel center near Beloit last spring, traffic increased at the bureau’s visitor center in Palmer Park. Drivers may just be stopping to use restrooms, but “we kind of see this as a captive audience with a chance to educate,” Rebout said.

“We obviously have a tough job ahead of us to redo that image of Janesville,” she said.

She points to the “great base” of attractions including Rotary Gardens and the Tallman House.

“We have to hit the pavement and reeducate the traveling public … about the great facilities we have,” she said.

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