Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

For Resort Towns, This Could Be a Cruel Summer


May 2020

For Dan Dhooghe, a summer isn’t complete without family trips to the Wisconsin Dells. The self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World” has offered generations of Midwestern kids, including Dhooghe’s two boys, an enticing combination of water slides, fudge shops, duck boats, and kitschy entertainment, like Tommy Bartlett’s water ski and jumping boat thrill show.  

Dhooghe, a retired deputy police chief in Aurora, Illinois, and his wife, Linda, have made this central Wisconsin destination their annual vacation spot for the last 20 years. Sons Jason, 23, and Sean, 21, have long since traded amusement rides for golf courses, but they still look forward to spending a week or two unwinding at the family’s condo at the Wilderness on the Lake resort.

This year, the Dhooghes, like so many families, find their seasonal escape uncertain at best.

“It would be nice to be able to get away, but with this pandemic, you can’t go anywhere, no matter where your vacation home is,” he says. “It’s frustrating; you just can’t make any plans.”

The American summer vacation is in limbo, caught between a pandemic and a patchwork of policies attempting to balance sagging economies and public health risks. With spring gone and summer in peril, towns that rely on tourism dollars face an unprecedented economic challenge.

Emina Cardamone, director of forecasting for Tourism Economics, says she’s “never seen a decline like this” in the travel sector. Her firm’s baseline estimate for the U.S. travel industry is a 45% drop in business, or $651 billion in lost revenue. The American economy might be headed to a recession, but the travel industry is already in a depression, says Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. Last year, the industry employed more than 15 million people; by May 1 this year, this sector had already shed 8 million jobs.

Wisconsin tourism secretary-designee Sara Meaney says that the state as a whole has already lost $1.75 billion in tourism revenue this year. But getting the region’s vacation economy back on the road to recovery stands be more complicated than merely lifting stay-at-home rules. Governor Tony Evers’ orders closing businesses statewide had been set to expire May 26 but were struck down by the State Supreme Court on May 12, setting off a rush of planning by business owners to figure out how to, and if they should, reopen. (Some bars in the state opened immediately) Cases statewide have trended up since then, with 2,802 new cases in the week after the orders were lifted, with a new daily record of 528 reported on May 20.

For communities like the Wisconsin Dells, it’s far from clear when people will again feel comfortable in places like waterparks, theaters, and other attractions. Is an open sign enough? In the absence of clear government and health department orders, it’s been left to consumers to decide if it’s safe to load the family in the minivan.

Right now the Wisconsin Dells region, including the small city of Wisconsin Dells and towns like Baraboo, would have typically been coming off a busy spring break season, and gearing up for Memorial Day weekend. Within a few hours drive of cities like Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, the area functions as one of the Midwest’s vacation engines. In 2019, the Dells posted its highest tourism earnings ever, $1.2 billion, according to Romy Snyder, CEO and president of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“It’s become a generational thing,“ Snyder says, “Grandparents who came here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s a real pleasure for them to bring their grandchildren and give them a glimpse of something they enjoyed as a kid.”

Instead, as Darren Hornby, executive director of the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce, told a local paper, hotel occupancy is “close to nonexistent.” Chula Vista Resort plans to be the first to open its indoor water park on Friday, May 22, the start of Memorial Day weekend, Mt. Olympus Hotel and amusement park plans to welcome guests May 23, with others following in the coming weeks. Paul Schaller, a senior vice president at the Bank of Wisconsin Dells, which mostly serves the small mom and pop businesses that make up the bulk of the local economy, says they’ve already sent out $35 million in loans to 314 area businesses, via the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal government’s efforts to save small businesses.

“A full shutdown in an area like this is catastrophic,” he says. “Spring break is three to five weeks of business, which they won’t get back. We’re probably going to miss Memorial Day weekend, too. These are key, critical periods.”

The loss of tourism income ripples out across regions that depend on the industry, according to Chris Pike, an economic development analyst at Tourism Economics. When tourism shuts down, the businesses that serve those businesses — the bankers, printers, cleaners — all suffer. The combination of a loss in sales and lodging taxes, and a loss of income taxes, leads to a second wave of unemployment.“What business? It’s a ghost town here.”

Rick Wilcox, owner of a popular magic theater and attraction on Wisconsin Dells Parkway, a main strip lined with other attractions, had to cancel his spring break shows, and hasn’t performed tricks publicly since businesses were ordered closed on March 25 (he’s been doing a daily magic show on the company website to entertain fans). “A lot of people are canceling their vacation plans, and I don’t blame them,” he says. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen yet. Most of the people living in this town run a tourism business, and if nobody comes this summer, a lot are going to go out of business.”

Even with the courts invalidating the governor’s stay at home order, he won’t immediately open his doors. He says he’s figured out ways to run a show in the 600-person theater by spacing out seating and eliminating any potentially dangerous audience interaction. But he needs potential customers in town to justify the cost.

“What business?” he says. “It’s a ghost town here.”

State tourism secretary Snyder says that Dells waterparks like Noah’s Ark and Kalahari, part of larger national chains, are working to deliver a safe experience to guests (neither would speak to CityLab), but it all ultimately depends on when families feel comfortable returning. A recent outbreak of coronavirus in a dorm meant for seasonal vacation industry workers didn’t inspire confidence.

“The Dells is the waterpark capital of the world for a reason,” says Meaney. “It’s a highly regulated industry, and all these businesses understand their livelihoods depend on protecting their customers.”

But state guidelines on reducing capacity and sanitizing rides between each use, along with policy suggestions put forth by the U.S. Travel Association, won’t bring people back to vacation towns if guests aren’t ready. Dhooghe and his family are wary, but he says he’ll rely on government guidance to decide if he should come.

“If the local authorities say it’s cool, we’ll head up there, as soon as we get the word to go,” he said a few days before the court’s decision. “We’ll wear masks and be socially distant, and as long as everybody else is doing the same, we’ll go on with the new normal.”

Plenty of other households that have made commitments to visit beach rentals and theme parks and other summer attractions are similarly clinging to their hopes. But the medium-term future of the family vacation remains deeply uncertain. And when summer destinations do reopen, they might well be transformed by the pandemic and the economic disruption it’s brought. Tourism Economics’s Cardamone says that any extended slowdown will threaten the colorful mom and pop retailers that define resort-town culture, potentially leading to consolidation. But there also may be an upside for lesser-trafficked destinations that can offer space and seclusion.

That’s the new pitch coming from Wisconsin state tourism, according to Meaney, which has changed its message to highlight the outdoors and the state’s natural resources, pushing the state’s forests, roughly 15,000 lakes, and outdoor recreation activities. The Dells region may benefit by pushing stays at nearby Devils’s Lake State Park. Camping revenue won’t come close to making up for lost dollars at theme parks, however.  

Omer Rabin, a managing director for the Americas at Guesty, a global property management platform, has a guess as to what may happen to the traditional summer vacation. Like so many other events on the 2020 calendar, summer might just be pushed back a few months. His firm is seeing record-setting advance bookings for the winter holiday season, including a 40% increase for Christmas reservations. Families are booking big houses in places like the Catskills in New York, Tahoe, or Napa Valley — markets within driving distance from big cities — for two-to-three week blocks, hoping to get multiple generations together. The optimistic assumption: By wintertime, it might finally be safe to be a tourist again.

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