Brainerd Dispatch

May 28, 2009

Staff Writer

BAXTER - A roomful of Brainerd lakes area resort, hotel and hospitality business owners Wednesday were given a ray of hope when it comes to the tourism industry in today's tough economic times.

For the first time in more than a decade, according to tourism officials, a U.S. senator hosted a public forum in the Brainerd area just to talk about tourism. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., convened two tourism forums - one in Duluth and the second at the Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. The forums were designed to look at the challenges and opportunities of the travel and tourism industry in today's economy.

Panelists at the Brainerd session were John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota; Tom Kavanaugh, chair of the Brainerd Lakes Tourism Advisory Committee; Lisa Paxton, chief executive officer of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber; Ingrid Schneider, director of the University of Minnesota Tourism Center; and David Siegel, chief staff executive of Hospitality Minnesota.

Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion, was conducting the tourism forums to let tourism folks know the federal government recognizes the industry is feeling an economic downturn, but there are actions area people can take to turn it around. And the government also is working on options to help the industry.

Klobuchar said tourism is the fifth-largest industry in Minnesota, generating $11 billion in annual sales and providing nearly 11 percent of the state's total private sector employment. In Crow Wing County alone in 2007, tourism provided more than $197 million in gross sales and 4,296 tourism jobs, according to data provided by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber. In Cass County in 2007, tourism provided more than $99 million in gross sales and 1,807 jobs in tourism.

Klobuchar said many families are cutting back on vacations and when they do go on vacation they're looking for the best value for their dollar. Klobuchar said tourism industries should promote their deals openly and to more venues across the state, or for that matter, around the world.

"We must encourage companies to do good things," said Klobuchar. "Family trips can be done in economic ways."

Klobuchar said industries should market their business internationally, especially in Canada. Klobuchar said she's proposing a national organization, which would be supported through passport fees, to promote United States tourism

Klobuchar also said resorts and hotels should promote their convention centers more, even though people and businesses have been curtailing their travel expenses.

Edman said every county in the state feels the economic impact of tourism. Edman said Explore Minnesota knows that people need to get away, they just need a little encouragement. He said the new campaign this spring is promoting outdoor recreation, visiting state parks and the importance of meetings conducted at convention centers.

Siegel said all business owners want to succeed and they don't want to raise their prices. Siegel said the common saying the tourist industry is hearing from customers on deals/rates is, "Is that the best you can do?" Siegel said lawmakers need to be aware of how their decisions impact the industry.

Paxton said the Brainerd lakes area draws tourists from coast to coast and the industry is expecting people to take shorter vacations and make last-minute reservations. They also may eat out and shop less. However, Paxton said the lakes area is still the prime place to go as it focuses on community events and it also targets families with children.

Kavanaugh said resorts traditionally book weeklong vacations, but now people are staying for fewer days. He said this makes it tougher to manage a business.

"It'd be easy for me to tell you (Klobuchar) what you can do to help us," said Kavanaugh.

Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge, who attended the forum, said 60 percent of the lodge's recent business came on less than a seven-day notice.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Ronnei.

Joel Cairy, managing partner of The Lodge, asked Klobuchar to send the message to Congress that government travel is a huge part of their business.

Mark Innes of Comfort Suites in Baxter said after the forum that having Klobuchar address tourism was a good sign.

"Everyone is scared to travel because they don't know if they're going to have a job next week," said Innes. "People want to get away and it helps the community when they do."