By Brian E. Clark
BOSCOBEL – After a winter with his gear in storage, Scott Teuber is shining up his seven dozen canoes, two dozen kayaks and checking the scores of life vests he owns to make sure they’re in good working order.
“I’m counting on a strong summer,” said Teuber, who runs Wisconsin River Outings out of this town in the southwest corner of the Badger State.
Teuber, one small cog in the state’s nearly $12 billion tourism industry, guides trips on the Lower Wisconsin River and also rents boats to people who want to do their own outings.
Overall, spending on travel in Wisconsin rose by $71 million last year, according to state figures. It was the 11th straight year of increases.
Summer is by far the most popular time for travel in Wisconsin, but wet weather from May through July last year kept overall spending relatively flat at $4.3 billion.
Winter showed the largest increase of any season, with expenditures up by nearly 2 percent to $2.2 billion. Winter remains the lowest of the seasons in total dollar figures. Fall ($2.8 billion) is in second place and spring comes in third ($2.5 billion).
Up north near St. Germain, Black Bear Lodge owner Diane Misina is putting the final touches on renovations of several cabins and the lodge restaurant.
Like Teuber, she too is counting on a solid summer for Black Bear and the half dozen other lodges and motels that her family owns in both Wisconsin and Michigan.
Elsewhere in the rest of the state, hundreds of golf course, campground, motel and waterpark owners are also preparing their operations for what they hope is the coming onslaught.
And while they are closely watching gas prices as they move up and down, many say good weather is more critical to their businesses than the cost of gasoline.
“We get most of our visitors from the Midwest,” said Misina. “So although people who visit us are driving, the increased cost isn’t that much. And it actually might factor into their deciding to vacation locally instead of going out West, for example.”
Misina said last year’s wet spring cut into her business somewhat.
“But summer was strong,” she said. “People come up here and stay for a week, so it’s not last-minute travel.
“We are also more weather dependent in the fall, which was very strong,” she said. “We haven’t heard much about the cost of gas from guests because it’s not that big a part of their vacation costs.
Tueber, who is starting his third season, bought the company from another outfitter and doubled his predecessor’s business the first summer, thanks to successful marketing efforts focused mainly in the Chicago area.
A Web site (http://www.canoe-camping.com) help boost his rentals and he increased his trade by another 20 percent last summer.
“If I could do that again this year, I’d be pretty happy,” said Teuber, who is accredited by the American Canoe Association and has wilderness first responder certification. “But the more I grow, the more people I have to hire and train.
“This is a wonderful wilderness down here that not a lot of people know about,” said Teuber, a former junior high school teacher. He is branching out into youth paddle camps for kids ages 12-17. He also guides corporate outings, scouting and church groups.
“You almost never have to share a sandbar if you camp overnight, and the banks are heavily wooded so you often feel like you have the whole river to yourself.”
Teuber said though high gas prices might limit some vacations, he figures he may benefit from people tightening their belts. Canoe rentals start at just $30 a day, while kayaks begin at $35 a day. Multi-day rental rates are cheaper.
“For us, the weather is what determines our business,” he said. “In that way, we are kind of like farming.”
Jim Holperin, Wisconsin’s tourism secretary, said gas prices are a double-edged sword.
“I haven’t heard that they will have that much of a damaging effect for our state’s tourism so far,” he said.
“More than 60 percent of our business comes from inside the state and about a quarter comes from places like Chicago and the Twin Cities, which are relatively short drives.
“So in that sense, coming to or staying in Wisconsin could be an advantage,” he said.
On the downside, high gas prices make people worry that the economy is in trouble. That could cause them to trim their vacation plans, he said.
Holperin said department research shows that transportation costs are only 7 percent of the cost of a vacation.
“So if gas prices cause that to increase to 8 percent, it shouldn’t have that big an effect, but you never know,” he said.
Holperin said he hopes this summer will be sunny. If that’s the case, business could climb 3 to 5 percent over last year during the same period.
A proposal by Gov. Jim Doyle to increase the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s marketing budget by $3.8 million over the next biennium might also increase travel here. If approved by the Legislature, the increase would represent a 21 percent boost in funding for advertising and the first increase for tourism marketing in six years.
“Last year it was chilly and wet and that hurt us,” Holperin said. “It was a good reminder that our industry is heavily weather dependent.
“It showed us that we need to diversify and find facets to expand like the arts, cultural attractions, theater, fine arts and shopping that don’t always need good weather to succeed.”
For more information on Wisconsin River Outings, call (866) 412-2663. For details on Black Bear Lodge, look up http://www.blackbearlodge.com or call 1-800-563-4340. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s Web site is http://www.travelwisconsin.com.