WisBusiness: Klett says investing in tourism brings many happy returns — for visitors and economy

For nearly two decades as host of the “Discover Wisconsin” travel program, Stephanie Klett was on the road 200 days a year.

That ought to prepare Klett well for her new job as secretary of the Department of Tourism.

And, if Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill passes, she’ll have something big to talk about — a marketing budget increase of more than 50 percent over the next two years, from the current $9.9 million level to $15 million.

“We’re thrilled about that,” Klett said in a recent WisBusiness.com interview. “And the question might also be, ‘Why tourism you’re taking a billion dollars in cuts in education and health services and things that seem very necessary and are very necessary?’

“But what you put back in tourism, you get back over and over and over,” she said, stressing the jobs that will result. “It will be used for marketing, which is all about repetition to target in on our key areas, the state of Wisconsin, Chicago, Minneapolis-St.Paul, and an emerging market, Iowa, which has an extremely strong business climate right now.

“They are eager to vacation in Wisconsin, so we are going to head over that way as well,” she noted.

Klett said the Wisconsin travel industry weathered the recession fairly well and is poised to grow.

“A few years ago we were hit pretty hard,” she said. “And the marketing budget was also cut. What they found was that by cutting marketing a few million dollars was that we lost $1 billion in travel expenditures. That’s huge.”

In 2009, tourism revenue was $12.1 billion, a drop of 7.8 percent from 2008.

Figures for 2010 won’t be released until this spring, but Klett said she believes it will will show an increase.

“I think we’ve turned a corner and so long as our gas prices can stay under $4, we are looking to have an excellent year this year, too,” she added.

Klett said her department also is working with travel journalists who write for national magazines and newspapers around the country to increase the state’s exposure.

In addition, she hopes to attract more tourists from abroad.

“International travel to the U.S. was down last year,” she said. “But you know what, people from German and Switzerland love Monroe and the New Glarus area. Well, we have a lot of Polish friends in Portage County, so how about we tap into the Polish market? That’s something that we’ll be looking at and going for.”

If Tourism gets $15 million for marketing, it will return to a level roughly where it was in the past and to an amount state tourism industry had been requesting.

“In the past few years, the marketing dollars went down, down, down,” she said. “The Tourism Federation of Wisconsin’s goal was for tourism funding to be at $15 million. So truly, the tourism industry is thrilled.”

Klett said she’s keeping her fingers crossed that the $15 million figure will stay in the budget bill as it winds its way through the Republican-run Legislature.

“We are anxious because we know that just because it was proposed doesn’t mean it will pass,” she said. “But we were flooded with emails from people from Door County to Superior to Bayfield saying `Wow,’ this is the right direction for tourism.'”

Klett is a native of Beloit, a former Miss Wisconsin and long-time host of “Discover Wisconsin.” She said wasn’t thinking of becoming a member of Walker’s cabinet until late last year.

“I had the best job in the state,” mused Klett, who calls Bayfield and the Apostle Islands her favorite part of Wisconsin.

“I got paid to go on vacation, though I did a lot more than that,” said the Emmy Award winner. “I wrote more than 4,000 radio shows and did all of our PR.”

Klett, who logged a million miles criss-crossing the state’s 72 counties countless times since 1992, said she worried that she might find being tourism secretary boring.

“But now I’m embarrassed that that thought ever crossed my mind because it has been a full sprint since Jan. 3,” she said. “I really feel that everything I’ve done in the past leads me to be in a unique position to really partner and create some relationships that have been ignored or not properly developed.”

She said the “kinda fell into” the tourism chief job.

“Some of Gov. Walker’s people were calling me for advice,” explained Klett, who said she was advised to turn in her resume.

“But I’ve never had a resume. So I put one together a resume and had a conversation, and the rest is history.”

In addition to boosting the budget for marketing, Klett said tourism leaders told her she should work to promote the state’s Native American community.

“There are 11 tribes in our state and obviously, we receive gaming revenue from them,” she said. “But how much of a real partnership do we have?

“The Lac du Flambeau have the largest pow wow in the United States, the Honor the Earth powwow,” she said. “When you seen hundreds of people coming in full regalia – if you don’t have a lump in your throat – you’re not human.”

One thing Klett won’t be changing any time soon is the state’s tourism slogan.

“We are kind of on burn-out,” she said. “Wisconsin has had amazing campaigns, but then everyone comes in and says I have to make my mark and change it. Then who are you?

“We’ve had ‘Escape to Wisconsin,’ ‘Live Like You Mean It,’ ‘Stay a Little Longer,’ ‘You’re Among Friends,’ and the list goes on and on. So right now we’re just wanting to create some wonderful commercials, radio, print, social media and TV that capture who we are.

“We want to make sure in our marketing that everything we do creates the true Wisconsin experience and touches your heart.”

Klett said she hopes the state’s film tax credits program is restored and moved from the Commerce Department to her agency.

She called it an “awesome program” with potentially long-lasting benefits.

“Little Bohemia in Manitowish Waters is where Johnny Depp filmed the John Dillinger shootout (in the movie ‘Public Enemy’) and they are still reaping the benefits of that from a few years ago.

“Try to get a table on a weekend there. People want to see the bullet holes from the real shootout, but they also want to see where Johnny Depp filmed. They have his makeshift bedroom upstairs. People go up there and get all excited about it. There is that kind of residual effect with it.”

Listen to the interview here.

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com