WisBusiness: New Tourism Secretary Predicts Gains in State Travel Spending

MADISON – The 2006 Wisconsin tourism spending numbers are still being crunched and Gov. Jim Doyle won’t make the official announcement until Tuesday evening at the state’s annual travel convention in Appleton.

But Kelli Trumble, the new state Tourism Department Secretary, says she believes the numbers will be up over 2005, when travel brought in $12 billion.

“I have a feeling the numbers will be very positive,” said Trumble, who was head of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau from 1985 to 1995.

“We may well be looking at a record year for travel and tourism in 2006. It could be pretty exciting,” added Trumble, who also said her department will announce changes in the state’s travel marketing campaign on Monday.

The new creative approach has been dubbed “Great Moments.” It will retain the current “Life’s So Good” tagline, but the changes will include new music for television and – for both TV and print – will make greater use of close-up and lifestyle photography in an effort to evoke emotional and nostalgic vacation memories.

After Trumble left the Dells visitors’ bureau, she ran her own marketing, communications and customer relations office the Dells, developed an in-area cable TV show on the activities in her area.

In 2003, she opened and ran the award-winning Sundara Inn & Spa in the Dells until she sold her share in 2006. She also served on the Governor’s Council on Tourism for nine years, as well as numerous other travel organizations. Her department has a staff of 40 and an annual budget of $15 million.

Trumble recently sat down with WisBusiness editor Brian Clark for an interview.

WisBusiness: When did you start at Tourism?

Kelli Trumble: My official start was Feb. 19, so I’ve only been here about two weeks, as you can tell by my office.

WB: What were you doing most recently?

Trumble: In 2003, I founded and built the Sundara Inn and Spa in the Wisconsin Dells. In 2006, NBC’s Good Morning America and Travel and Leisure Magazine sent out a group of “mystery shoppers” across the United States to pick their top 10 spa escapes in America and Sundara was named No. 3.

That was pretty cool. My goal in creating Sundara was to get people to fly into Wisconsin instead of just fly over it. I sold my interest in it at the end of 2006 to my business partners who are now carrying on my vision. My husband and I were the majority owners and we also ran it day-to-day. I was also the CEO and I found myself so immersed in the daily operations.

One of the reasons I am so excited about this opportunity to serve as secretary of the Wisconsin Tourism Department is because I have a strong passion for the hospitality industry. My entire professional experience has been in building brand images and marketing hospitality customer service. So by serving as secretary, I’ll have an incredible opportunity to work with the entire state.

WB: The Wisconsin Dells is probably the biggest single tourism destination in the entire state now. And you were the head of the visitors and convention bureau there for quite a while. Is there anything you can bring from that experience that will help the rest of Wisconsin?

Trumble: During that time, we were just building the first outdoor water park. We were creating winter festivals we could make the Dells a year-round destination.

We understood, even back in the 70s and 80s, how important diversification was. You can see how much it has changed since then. I retired from that job in 1995. And much has changed even since then.

I think there is a tremendous amount that the Dells can share with the state tourism industry. First of all, it begins with the entrepreneurial spirit of the business community. I will lead with a high level of optimism and energy. I was born and raised in the Dells, so I will emphasize the things I learned there at a very young, including customer service, a strong work ethic, working with visitors from all cultures and walks of life, and diversifying the product.

I think that is very important because consumers have different interests. That is something we are finding all over the state. I was just in northern Wisconsin last week and there was a discussion about silent sports and things like ATVs and snowmobiles. So the more niche markets we have, the more people we can serve. People can travel all over the globe, but we want more visitors to come here and we want our own residents to travel within our state and discover all that Wisconsin has to offer.

One of the greatest strengths that I bring to this position because of my experience in the Dells is knowing how to set differences aside to achieve a goal. Building consensus is something I really learned working there.

WB: Was your family in tourism?

Trumble: My father, John Trumble, was a professional photographer who during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s took commercial photos of the scenic rock formations and amphibious ducks splashing into the rivers, among other things. I remember my dad hanging out from a helicopter by his ankles shooting an aerialist over a crowd of 3,000 at the Tommy Bartlett show. He climbed to the top of the Totem Tower of Fort Dells before the elevator was put in to get the right shot. I give my dad a lot of credit for artistically helping put the Wisconsin Dells on the map during that period.

WB: Can you talk a bit about the effort that will brand Wisconsin as being “green” and a place for ecotourism?

Trumble: I’m very excited to come at this time. Jim Holperin, who previously held this post, worked with the department staff for some time in launching this tourism conference that runs Sunday through Tuesday with the main focus on ecotourism, sustainability and our natural resources and beauty. Our staff has launched a program called “Travel Green” and there are businesses all over the state that have become certified because of their sustainability commitment.

This is something that I think we can really be an important part of our branding image and really help set Wisconsin apart from surrounding states and other areas of the nation.

We have incredible assets here. It is everyone’s responsibility at this time to what we can to protect that and be wise business owners and operators about what we teach our staff about using resources wisely.

I can tell you from my personal experience at Sundara that of course we practiced all of those. And our guests wrote to us about how pleased they were about that. They want to participate in programs like that. Jim and the staff here had a lot of foresight to put this program together. I hope to play an important part and take it to the next level.

WB: Are water parks green? Do they fit into the ecotourism model?

Trumble: I can’t speak specifically about their water recycling efforts, you would have to ask them. You need to look at the huge number of people who are attracted to these water parks and what impact that has on the state’s economy in terms of revenue and taxes and employment year-round.

In my experience at Sundara spa, people might say there is an awful lot of water used there. But let’s not be too quick to judge because we had cutting edge filtering and recycling systems.

WB: You’ll also be promoting the state’s golf more too?

Trumble: Oh yes. We have the U.S. Senior Open coming up around July 4 at Whistling Straits in Kohler and the PGA took place there two years ago and we are vying for an upcoming Ryder Cup. Our state has incredible golf assets and that is an industry that continues to grow. We have a lot of opportunity to package the incredible beauty of this state, plus its challenging courses with shopping and dining and lodging. That’s something our department is very involved in and is taking a leadership role in promoting and trying to get more big tournaments to come into our state.

The Commerce Department is also using golf as a way to help stimulate other business growth and as a platform to do other business as these tournaments are going on. That’s a very good thing.

WB: Tourism is the third biggest revenue producer in the state?

Trumble: Yes, the third leading industry. And people are having a good time in life while they are spending money in our state, releasing stress and creating family memories.

I give credit to the governor and the Legislature for increasing the budget for the Tourism Department two years ago. They took that money and put it into more markets and increased the frequency of the advertising campaign. There is a direct correlation to increased spending and that’s why we may have a record year for tourism spending 2006.

WB: Sometimes the tourism industry is criticized for paying low wages. Is that simple a fact of life, or are there any efforts being made to raise those wages?

Trumble: My first thought in response to that question is that it is amazing when you work in the hospitality industry how many people are funding their college educations with these jobs.

People who have other careers also supplement their incomes with tourism by waitressing or working on a golf course. Also, often times a lower wage is balanced by what goes into gratuities. People choose to be in the hospitality industry because based on their level of customer service, their tips can make a real difference. So in the end, they are not at minimum wage.

However, this industry is so caring about its workforce. We are always looking at compensation to the level of work that is delivered. One of the challenges we are facing is workforce development. It is right at the top of our list now and in the future. As the industry grows, so does our need for skilled and talented staff. As an industry, we need to all work together to improve that.

WB: Are there any parts of the state that need special help in regards to tourism?

Trumble: To sidetrack a bit, my leadership style is going to be to get out to every corner of the state. I won’t be sitting behind this desk much. In my first week, I put on 750 miles to go to northern Wisconsin.

So to answer your question, product diversification is going to be a key in pockets of the state. Being up north for the American Birkebeiner, leading into the event, they had little snow. But their optimism drove that event and they got a little bit of snow right before it was to start and that was great.

The beauty of being in Wisconsin is that we are a four-season destination. But we can’t control Mother Nature. Historically in the north, we have relied on snow for winter sports. There will need to be product diversification.

WB: For example?

Trumble: It might be museums, hotels with a spa component, water component, convention center that could provide for more indoor activities so you can do things if it is raining in the summer or not snowing in the winter.

But it’s not just northern Wisconsin. I know there is a new promotional group for the western part of our state below La Crosse in that area where we have incredible natural beauty. It’s also a really interesting part of Wisconsin. We have all kinds of treasures here, so we need to do a better job of telling the world about them. Everyone travels for different and it is our role to give the industry the support it needs and the tools it needs to identify its assets. Birding might be an example. It’s something I need to learn about, but we all know that people are passionate about all the incredible birds we have in various parts of Wisconsin. Some parts of the state could offer that, while the Dells or Door County might not be able to.

WB: In terms of talking to the rest of the world, does Wisconsin get many foreign tourists.

Trumble: Yes. Typically, if someone is coming from Asia or Europe, they are spending a longer time traveling. To capture them, we can’t allow our budget to remain status quo because the frequency that we can advertise in a leading market like Chicago, the more likely we can attract international visitors who are going there.

WB: How does Milwaukee figure into state tourism promotion efforts?

Trumble: There is tremendous potential for Milwaukee to be one of the leading urban, city destinations in this country because of its great museums, with constantly changing exhibits, and other assets. We are close to being on par with Chicago and St. Louis. This department wants to work with everyone in the Milwaukee area to build on its strengths.

WB: What kind of budget would you like to see the tourism department have.

Trumble: It is now almost $15 million. I would very much like to see it grow. With the report we will be releasing, we’ll be able to show what the return on investment is. Nearly $12 million of our budget goes into direct advertising. If you spend $12 million and get back a return of $12 billion to the state’s economy, every time we can grow that in $3 million or $4 million increments, just think what the potential is.

WB: Will you be asking for more money in this biennium?

Trumble: No. The budget that was just introduced is for 2007-08, so what is important for us is to be tigers before the Legislature to protect the roughly $15 million that’s in there. For the 2009-10 budget, we think it is important to not just ask, but our industry will show the return on investment and what they are also spending through their own visitors’ bureaus and chambers of commerce. There will be a grass-roots’ effort.

There was an increase in our budget the last biennium and we feel fortunate that there has not been a decrease. We think that is a vote of confidence from the governor and the Legislature because they are asking other departments to make some cuts as high as 2 percent. That’s why the news coming out this week about economic impact of tourism is important.

WB: Do most of Wisconsin’s tourists come from Illinois or is it Badger State natives who are the biggest group?

Trumble: Our own state is No. 1, followed by Illinois and the Chicago market. Minnesota and the Twin Cities are next.

WB: Do the Dells now bring in more tourism dollars than Milwaukee?

Trumble: No, but it’s getting closer. Milwaukee I 2005 was at $1.5 billion, Dane County $1 billion and Sauk County a little less than $1.1 billion. Bu the tough thing about the Dells is that it encompasses Sauk and Columbia counties. If you combine those two, it would be more than $1.2 billion. It will be interesting to see what the 2006 figure show, but we won’t have the individual county figures until May.

WB: Your department is working with the Agriculture Department to promote the culinary side of Wisconsin. What’s that program all about?

Trumble: We will be promoting all the indigenous products that come from Wisconsin that we harvest and create here. There will be eight culinary trails of which cheese and cranberries will be a part. It will include places you can go and things you can do that are connected to these foods.

This is important, because 25 percent of the travelers’ budget goes to food. I also think there is nothing better than Door County cherry pie. And look at what Washington Island, off the tip of Door County, is doing with its own specific wheat – creating vodka and beer.

At the governor’s conference, there will be four chefs from the four corners of the state who will be creating and demonstrating different kinds of food indigenous to their own regions of the state. So the chef from Washington Island will be introduce their new Death’s Door vodka by soaking chicken in it.

We are the nation’s heartland and people around the nation view us as healthy and having unique, special foods. I’m an avid bicyclist and one of the fun things to do at the end of 40-mile ride is finding a local restaurant with tasty food. We also have a lot of unique artisan cheeses that are coming out of Wisconsin.

That’s something else that we can promote. And right here in Madison, in Dane County, we have the nation’s largest producer only farmers’ market. We will blend the great outdoor activities with good food for a balance in lifestyle.