When it comes to tourist destinations, the Chippewa Valley isn’t Wisconsin Dells or Door County – i.e., swarming in the summer with out-of-state license plates. Nonetheless, whether they’ve come to pedal the bike trails or pose with Paul Bunyan, we draw a fair number of visitors. According to just-released figures from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, tourists directly spent an estimated $304 million in Dunn, Eau Claire, and Chippewa counties in 2012. In Eau Claire County alone, they spent $189 million, a modest increase from the previous year. More tourists means more hotel stays, and last year saw an increase in occupancy rates and room tax collections. (The taxes help fund tourism promotion through Visit Eau Claire, as well as some civic groups.) Eau Claire County ranked 15th among the state’s 72 counties last year in tourist spending, roughly what you’d expect for the 16th biggest county by population.
The Chippewa Valley – and Eau Claire in particular – could perform better in the tourism category if it offered more magnet attractions, signature events that drew visitors for more than a day, and more convention center space, say observers like Eau Claire City Councilman Dave Duax. “Because we’re not a tourist destination we miss a lot of that money that passes us on I-94 or on Highway 53 North,” he says.
“We know there is a lot of (visitor) business that would love to be in Eau Claire and we simply don’t have the facilities.”
While room tax collection and visitor spending are strong, the area struggles to boost hotel occupancy rates and needs to provide bigger and better meeting and convention facilities, adds Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire. She keeps an ever-expanding list of the conventions and athletic events that want to come to Eau Claire but can’t because facilities here just aren’t adequate. Over the past decade, that’s added up to tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Nonetheless, tourism officials are happy that visitor spending keeps growing. And the region certainly boasts some big draws for visitors: three major summer music festivals, the Leine Lodge, the Nature Valley Grand Prix bike race, Action City and Chaos Water Park, and countless outdoor and retail opportunities.
To move above average, the region needs more events and attractions that draw people for longer periods of time, and that will require a bigger effort by the private sector to create such magnets. Improved convention facilities would also help. There’s a lot for tourists to love here, and it’s a shame more of them don’t come.
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Linda John, executive director, Visit Eau Claire; Michael Strubel, director of sales and events, Visit Eau Claire; Allyson Gommer, tourism director, Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce; Dave Duax, Eau Claire City Council; Wisconsin Department of Tourism; City of Eau Claire.