LAKE DELTON — When Sara Meaney stood before nearly 850 tourism leaders from around the state last week, she offered up a challenge.
Meaney, Gov. Tony Evers’ nominee to lead the state Department of Tourism, asked that sometime over the next 12 months they visit a place in the state that they had not yet explored.
Maybe it’s a state park, the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, a secluded portion of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest or a visit to a historic downtown such as Mineral Point, Cedarburg or Hudson.
For Meaney, her bucket list includes a trek along the Great River Road. She’s crossed the Mississippi River many times but actually taking the time to slow down, explore and engage with the people and places that define the state’s western edge is something that’s been missing from her travel itinerary, despite being born and raised in the state.
Meaney, 44, grew up in Whitefish Bay, is a graduate of UW-Madison and has a long career in marketing and advertising. As the state’s tourism secretary designee, she oversees a crucial department in a state where tourism is a $20 billion industry and one of the state’s three economic legs along with agriculture and industry.
Shortly after her first address at the Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Tourism at the Kalahari Resort & Convention Center, Meaney, who is married and has four children between the ages of 6 and 14, spoke with the State Journal about her new position and a tourism industry that has seen growth in each year since 2010.
Q: Tourism has been growing but you seem to think it can do much better?
A: Tourism has grown in the U.S., period. Tourism is a growing industry. We are in a positive economic time right now in the nation and as a result people take more trips and Wisconsin is a beneficiary of that growth as well. It hasn’t necessarily grown at the same pace, certainly not every year, some years it outpaces, some years it’s behind. But in the scheme of things I think it would be great if we set our sights on more than average growth knowing that more than average growth is possible in the Midwestern region, we’ve seen our competitors do it. So I think that’s setting our bar a little higher.
Q: Wisconsin has a boundless supply of outdoor recreation opportunities that include activities like canoeing, camping, golfing, biking and even wind surfing. The governor’s budget proposes the creation of an office of outdoor recreation. What does that look like?
A: It’s not a new concept. What it really does is it creates the impetus to connect people and organizations, government and non-government, for profit and not for profit who are all moving in the same direction toward the benefit of outdoor recreation opportunities. Some of it is about maintaining and managing the resources that are already there but ultimately it’s about unifying the voice and telling the story that what we have in Wisconsin is a huge driver of the tourism economy. (Outdoor activities) is the number one reason people report as to why they come to Wisconsin now. What we’re doing is not reinventing the wheel but getting organized behind it.
Q: So you see a lot of opportunity for continued growth?
A: There is. The good news is, there’s already been that path of growth so what we can do is build on the strengths that are already here, the things that are going well and the regions that are driving activities. But there’s also an opportunity to tell a more unified story. We do see some pretty impactful competition from our neighbors (Minnesota and Michigan) on either side of us and both of them are targeting Wisconsin travelers to gain their own market share. Wisconsin is a huge target for their activities. So we need to be competitive to not lose our market share of Wisconsin in-state travel and certainly not lose ground in our current base of out-of-state travelers.
Q: What type of payoff will the Democratic National Convention be for not just Milwaukee but Wisconsin as a whole when it comes to tourism?
A: The $200 million impact we expect to see as a bump because of the convention is just a drop in the bucket for what it means as an opportunity for us to tell the story of Wisconsin. For the next 470 or so days between now and when that starts we will have an unprecedented opportunity to talk about our state. We can’t afford to buy that kind of media coverage. Public relations has never been more important in the mix of our activity as a state Department of Tourism as it will be for the next year plus. That will change how we think about how our time is spent and we need to get organized to convene the entire industry to get everyone united behind the vision for what we’re trying to become over the next five to 10 years.
Q: One of your goals is to draw more people of color to the state. How do you do that?
A: It’s a very complicated question. It isn’t as simple as putting people of color in an ad or using the voice of a person of color. What we need to do is make sure that the experiences that people have when they travel through the state, whether they are from Wisconsin or from outside of the state, that they experience a genuine, welcoming, community feeling. What we have to do is rethink the way we engage in various channels, the way we engage community groups and truly authentically build rather than simply talk at. Talking at isn’t going to move anyone’s perceptions and certainly isn’t going to change anyone’s experience.