Nestled between Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, Walworth County is one of the most prolific and profitable tourism destinations in Wisconsin.
In 2016, the county raked in $528.9 million in direct visitor spending. That number jumped to $544.2 million in 2017, ranking it the sixth-best tourism economy in state.
But recent budget cuts to the Walworth County Visitors Bureau have left some wondering about the future of the county’s tourism funding.
In its 2019 budget, the county lowered its share of aid to the bureau by $14,000, or 10 percent. That move sparked some local business owners to speak out, saying the bureau provides a significant boost to local businesses and that its funding is critical to the county’s tourism economy.
Kathleen Seeberg, executive director of the visitors bureau, said the organization was aware of the upcoming cuts. She said the visitors bureau increased membership fees and advertising rates in its travel guide and pulled back in other areas to compensate for the drop in funding.
Seeberg said the visitors bureau will look at diversifying its revenue stream in the future but securing funding is “always a concern, regardless of what year it is.”
Walworth County Board member Dan Kilkenny, who represents the city and town of Delavan, says one additional funding source might already exist for local tourism: room taxes.
Municipalities were recently mandated under state law to forward a portion of their local room tax revenue to tourism promotion and development, Kilkenny said. That mandate could pave the way for a potentially large revenue hike for tourism funding.
“Tourism promotion has a new and probably expanding funding source,” Kilkenny told The Gazette on Friday.
“I would just like to see the tourism bureaus working with the other municipalities that now have to spend this additional room tax.”
Kilkenny said the suggestion is not a criticism of the bureau but rather a way to explore tapping into what could be a massive funding bump. According to room tax reports from the state Department of Revenue provided by Kilkenny, the city of Delavan raked in $709,421 in room taxes last year, and $230,008 of that went to its tourism commission.
In Lake Geneva, room tax revenues were $667,820, and $244,999 of that was paid to its tourism commission, according to the Department of Revenue.
The visitors bureau also provides advertising and promotion to the city of Delavan, Seeberg said, and it receives a share of Delavan’s room tax for those services. But that revenue is applied only to the visitors bureau work for Delavan. Seeberg said a Delavan tourism commission determines that portion.
Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl could not be reached for comment Friday.
This year, the visitors bureau’s overall budget is $323,059, with $140,000 coming from the county.
Next year, the county’s aid will drop to $126,000. Other funding sources for the visitors bureau are membership dues, website advertising and other member-based programs, Seeberg said.
When asked if the visitors bureau contributes to the county’s booming tourism economy, Seeberg said, “Absolutely. There is no doubt, especially with our efforts in the group tour market.”