WisBusiness.com: North Woods tourism leader says summer bookings look good

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

Even though some former vacationers may be staying home because of the economic downturn, the total number of visitors to northern Wisconsin resorts should remain roughly the same or even rise slightly this summer.

That’s the optimistic prediction of Diane Misina, president of North Lakes Hospitality Inc. Her Saint Germain-based company has four resorts, three hotels and several private homes it rents out as vacation properties.

“We are seeing our summer shape up quite well, even a little ahead of what we’ve had in previous years,” said Misina, whose firm is one of the largest of its kind in the region. Its holdings include the Wild Eagle Lodge near Eagle River and the Black Bear Lodge outside Saint Germain. Both are in Vilas County.

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“With all the challenges in the economy, we are attributing it to people becoming closer and valuing family time more than they have in the past,” she said, noting customers are actively seeking bargains.

“We certainly don’t blame anybody looking for discounts,” she said. “We’re willing to work with our guests, but there is a peak time in the summer when there isn’t a lot of room for deals because the demand is so high for those dates.

“But clearly, all the news reports suggest that people ask (for discounts) and you’d have to be crazy not to, probably,” she added.

Misina said some long-time clients who stay for a week or more booked last year for this summer. Others are continuing to book through the spring.

“And there will be a push in May and June that will fill in a lot of the remaining (open) areas,” she added.

Misina said it would be a stretch to suggest her family’s resorts are benefitting from the recession, with Midwesterners choosing to vacation closer to home.

“I think our clientele might be changing a little bit,” she said. “We may have lost some who stayed with us in the past and then gained others because it’s easier to get here than taking a bigger vacation.”

Misina said half of her customers come from Wisconsin, another 45 percent from Illinois and the remainder from around the country.

“Reunions bring in people from all over,” said Misina, whose family has been in the tourism business for around a century. Her great grandfather, a Swede, homesteaded in St. Germain in 1898. He farmed at first, but by 1915 had opened the family’s first resort.

It was called Eliason’s Murmuring Waters Lodge on Lost Lake, which the Eliasons owned until the late 1970s. Another relative, great-uncle Carl Eliason, is credited with inventing the snowmobile for winter transportation.

Though there have been shifts to briefer trips in the past few decades, Misina said many vacationers to the Black Bear and Wild Eagle lodges are still coming for a week or so.

“We would acknowledge that there is a trend for shorter vacations and booking on shorter notice, but… there’s still a pretty heavy sector that books a year out and plans to do it year after year,” she said.

Misina’s company also rents out private homes with up to six bedrooms that can accommodate as many as 14 people. In addition to family reunions, these are used for business retreats.

“Some are used for meetings,” she said. “With high-speed Internet, you can throw up a screen and do Power Point presentations. It works out well for brain-storming or a reward for a team that has accomplished some goal at work.

“In fact, we’ve noticed an increase in that area,” she said.

Because the public seems to be frowning on lavish business trips to places like Las Vegas, she said more Midwest companies may choose to hold smaller meetings in the region.

For the long-term, she said she remains positive about tourism in the North Woods region.

“We’re pretty happy with our strong Midwest customer base,” she said.

But Misina fears costs will rise in coming years because of the push for development of cleaner energy and health care reform.

“There are a lot of things on the state and national level that are kind of scary that could affect our business,” she said. “Utility costs skyrocketing, rising interest rates, labor costs could be a big issue, so we are going to have some challenges going forward.”