Spending by tourists in Janesville and Rock County continued to climb over the last year, growing about 4 percent compared to spending in 2016, according to state Department of Tourism report released Friday.
Visitors to Rock County spent $244.7 million in 2017, compared to $235.2 million in 2016. Overall, Rock County’s tourism industry ranked as the 11th most robust of all 72 counties Wisconsin, the same ranking it had in 2016, according to the report.
Although visitor spending here continued to climb, it slowed from a 6.6 percent, $15 million jump between 2015 and 2016, growing $9.5 million in 2017. One local tourism official who tracks Rock County tourism said visitor spending in Rock County is showing signs of leveling off.
“I think the pace is slowing down a little bit, and it’s probably in part about infrastructure here,” Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said.
By comparison, Walworth County’s tourism spending—which ranks sixth in the state, is typically twice that of Rock County. Visitor spending rose 2.9 percent in Walworth County, according to state numbers, a slower pace compared to the 3 percent increase in visitor spending between 2015 and 2016.
Statewide, tourism spending showed a 3.2 percent climb in 2017.
In the Janesville area, Rebout sees indications based on statewide spending trends that restaurant and retail spending is on the incline, but reports her group tracks on Janesville area hotel occupancy show spending on lodging in Rock County remains largely unchanged.
Meanwhile, hotel occupancy rates the last few years in Janesville have capped 70 percent during much of the year, up from an annual occupancy rate of about 40 percent earlier in the decade.
Rebout said the county, Janesville included, is showing signs of “maxing out” in hotel occupancy at certain times of the year, even as some local groups are developing events aimed at drawing more visitors.
Rebout’s own group is working on ways to lure travelers to make more stops in Janesville.
Rebout in an interview last year predicted visitor spending to Rock County and Janesville could start to hit a “plateau” if there weren’t new hotel rooms added locally.
She said Friday that “a new hotel would help” keep in Janesville visitors who now bleed off to other, nearby communities with more hotel space.
A new hotel—actually two new hotels—is in the works.
City Economic Development Director Gale Price said Friday the city plans later this month to transfer ownership of a city parking lot along the West Milwaukee Street riverfront to a developer who plans a four-story, 53-room hotel that will be run by Cobblestone Hotels.
Price said the development is slated to break ground at the beginning of June, and it could open in February 2019.
Meanwhile, Madison developer Steve Doran has broken ground on a new, 52,000-square-foot Marriott Town Place Suites hotel. Price said crews this week were pouring footings for that hotel.
The hotel will be off Pontiac Drive adjacent to a former Menard’s that Doran’s group recently refitted as a multispace set of retail stores. The future Marriott is being billed as an “all-suite/extended stay” hotel—the first of its type in Rock County, according to earlier city memos.
Both hotel projects would receive city development incentives designed to be paid out as the developers make significant progress, or upon completion of the hotels.
The Cobblestone would be the first new commercial development downtown in more than 10 years.
It or the Marriott would be the first hotel built in Janesville since 1996, according to city records.
The state Department of Tourism report is based on surveys of about 200,000 travelers by a third-party analyst. Rebout said hotel occupancy information comes from the Smith Travel Occupancy report, a study that’s separate from the state tourism study but one analysis Rebout’s nonprofit tourism group pays for.
Hotel spending, while the largest driver in visitor spending in the state, is not the only metric Rebout said would show the dynamics of Rock County’s tourism economy.
Rebout said the state in its own tourism report doesn’t provide local data for spending across categories such as retail sales or restaurant stops. She said her nonprofit could consider paying for deeper analysis from the state’s contracted analyst, although it likely would try to pair up with tourism groups from adjacent Rock County communities such as Beloit to do so.
The Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau is funded in large part through a city hotel tax. The group in turn spends a significant amount on promotion of tourism.
The last year or so, Rebout said, her group has begun to spend on targeted marketing to travelers using geofencing—a GPS-based system that’s designed to push ads to travelers’ phones and wireless devices as they approach Janesville based on the travelers’ home ZIP codes. The ads Rebout’s group runs through geofencing tout local events, local eateries gas stations, attractions and retail shops as travelers approach the Janesville area.
Rebout said her group even pays for advertising on a weather forecasting phone app, a digital platform many travelers check as they drive.