Tourism is taking a deeper dive.
In Madison, there will be treks on snowshoes from Memorial Union to the middle of Lake Mendota, food and history tours of State Street and, at the Avenue Club, classes on Old Fashioneds and how to make bitters, one of the drink’s key ingredients.
Visitors to Eau Claire can learn more about where Bob Uecker and Hank Aaron played early in their baseball careers and how a former tire factory is now a hub of food production, local artisans and budding entrepreneurs. And in Green Bay, the experiences will include a range of culinary, historical and performing arts events, including one in which participants are asked to make suggestions for scenes of a play that are incorporated into the production on the spot.
Visiting the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame are still key attractions for those cities but in an effort to create richer, more personal experiences, tourism officials are venturing into what’s called experiential tourism with immersive tours and programs.
The idea is to generate new revenue, encourage repeat visits, provide new experiences within existing attractions and create programs that encourage participants to share their images on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Both millennials and baby boomers are trying to find these unique opportunities and in the industry we refer to them as seekers,” said Rob Gard, director of public relations and communications for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’re out there seeking things that are driven by social media. These are things that will build upon the visitor experience and utilize peer to peer influence.”
Tourism in Wisconsin is a $12.7 billion industry and, along with manufacturing and agriculture, is one of the state’s three primary economic legs. Visitors come to camp, hunt and fish; explore art galleries and wineries; tap their feet at music festivals, snowmobile the Northwoods, pick apples and cherries and plunge down water slides.
But the pilot programs launching this fall in Madison, Eau Claire and Green Bay are part of a national trend implemented in recent years in cities like Baltimore, Minneapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and Shreveport, Louisiana, under the guidance of Joe Veneto, a travel expert and consultant.
Veneto, based in the Boston area, has nearly 40 years of travel industry experience and has developed a process that helps businesses and destinations create stories and find unique aspects to enhance visitor experiences, a process that can take months to develop and hone.
“The experiences created produce a lasting impression on visitors’ emotional bank accounts,” Veneto touts on his website. “Today’s discerning visitors, regardless of market segment, are experience junkies. They want unique, local, and authentic experiences that connect to the heart, soul, and people in places where they travel.”
Businesses taking part in the programs need to apply, make a three year commitment and pay a $3,500 fee to help offset promotional efforts by their respective visitors bureaus. Those selected are also required to attend classes and seminars, develop web content and train their staffs.
In Madison, seven organizations are taking part in the initial program with three more joining this summer, all designed to help embolden Dane County’s $1.2 billion tourism industry, which ranks second in the state, only behind Milwaukee.
Capital City Food Tours offers a 2.5 hour State Street excursion that combines, food, drink, history and retail shops while Olbrich Gardens will have a 90 minute tour that focuses on the tastes and smells of plants and ends with a drink made from ingredients derived from rain forest plants.
In Middleton, the National Mustard Museum is offering up mustard tasting paired with food along with history lessons and cooking demonstrations. Death’s Door Distillery, just to the west off of Highway 14, is offering an improved 90 minute to two-hour tour that drills down into the history of the company and the ingredients harvested from Door County’s Washington Island. Visitors will get to see and touch the grains and botanicals used and taste vodka, white whiskey, peppermint schnapps and a just released Black Earth Bourbon.
“I think people just want more,” said Ryann Marlar, director of sales and marketing for the 25,000-square-foot distillery founded in 2007. “People spend so much time behind a screen so when they’re out they really want to dig in. They want to know more and learn about your values.”
At the Concourse Hotel in downtown Madison, chefs over the last year have helped to create a 90 minute experience in which visitors create their own cheese boards using locally made cheese. The event, at $40 per person and $70 per couple, is held each month beginning Nov. 15 and includes wine pairings.
“We really want to make sure it’s an exceptional experience,” said Stephanie LaBella, director of operations at the 373-room hotel. “It’s why people come to Madison. They want to have an experience and as a hotel, we’re all about creating experiences for our guests.”
Not just for tourists
But officials say the programs are aimed not only at visitors but at the locals as well. And unlike festivals or other once-per-year events, can be held throughout the year on an on-going basis. The Memorial Union, for example, is offering three events: a year-round class in which participants take to canvas and paint a Terrace chair at sunset; the snowshoe hike in the winter and a kayak trip to Picnic Point during open water season.
“People want an experience they just don’t want to buy a souvenir,” said Janine Wachter, director of convention and event services for the GMCVB. “These are more in-depth or engaging, they’re more immersive and behind the scenes. Some are experiences you’ve maybe had before but we’ve reimagined them or we’re telling the story on a deeper level.”
In Green Bay, the eight tours, six of which have not yet been announced, focus on historical aspects of the community along with its performing arts and growing culinary offerings. Motorcoach tours and conventions are seen as prime customers for the experiential programs, said Brenda Krainik, director of marketing and communications for the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“They visit Green Bay on a regular basis,” Krainik said. “We’re just looking at this as an opportunity to be innovative and to capture return visits from those larger groups. This (program) takes it up a notch and offers something different that the attraction they’ve been to before will have something new that makes them more apt to come back more often.”
In the Eau Claire area, where Bon Iver and Leinenkugel’s beer are beloved and the city is undergoing a revitalization with artisans, tech companies and music festivals, eight experiential tours are being offered. They include cooking experiences, reimagined brewery tours and an up-close look at the local maker economy. Another focuses on Banbury Place and Building 13 that one time were home to Uniroyal tire but now hosts art studios and other small businesses. Tours range in price from $25 to $40.
Linda John, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau, said there was a time when Eau Claire was considered a pass-through community for those headed to northern Wisconsin or the Twin Cities. Today, it’s a destination with trendy hotels, restaurants and the Pablo Center at the Confluence, a $51 million performing arts center that opened this fall and is home to a visitors center.
“These are all new revenue opportunities for our partners,” said John, who said packages will be sold out of the visitors center and on-line. “This is just the start. We’re anxious to see how this goes and we have other ideas for additional ones that we’d like to create. If we keep adding a few more each year, pretty soon it becomes almost a destination driver in itself.”