By Jane Brissett, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 24--Tourism businesses in the Northland want to believe this is the start of a nice summer because good weather can mean good revenue.
The National Weather Service predicts an average high of 75 degrees and about 12 inches of rain for June, July and August. Just what the doctor ordered after a warm, but in many cases money-losing, winter.
Weather is a key factor -- but not the only one -- in a successful tourism season. This year's early, warm spring weather has put people in a traveling mood early and many places in the Northland are reporting an increase in inquiries and reservations over 1997, when spring was late and cold.
The bulk of the 3.5 million visitors Duluth expects to see this year will come this summer. At mid-week, hotels and motels were nearly full for this weekend, said Terry Mattson, executive director of the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
If the weather is good during the next few months, Duluth can benefit from last-minute visitors and, with 3,649 rooms available in the area, it will be easier to find a room than it was in 1990, when there were 33 percent fewer rooms. Still, it will be hard to find a place to stay during July and August.
However significant the weather is when it comes to tourism, it isn't the only factor in a successful year, said Dan Erkkila, associate director of the University of Minnesota Tourism Center in Grand Rapids. "People continue to be very value- and cost-conscious," he said.
Gasoline prices, which this Memorial Day are about 14 cents lower than they were a year ago, make a difference. So do airfares.
Getting your marketing message to the right people is important, too. Many communities have found joint marketing to be effective and organizations such as the Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association, Iron Trail Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau are targeting Twin Cities and Midwestern states.
The DCVB will spend $120,000 on advertising purchases with the Twin Cities' newspapers and for transit bus signs during the next two months to tout Duluth as a vacation destination.
In fact, Mattson said, the weather in the Twin Cities -- Duluth's chief visitor market -- is really more important in getting people to visit than is the weather in Duluth. The travel bug, he said, bites at home.
While everybody seems to talk about it, Don Holecek, director of the Michigan State University Tourism Center, may be the only tourism expert in the U.S. who studies the relationship between tourism and the weather. He's done so since 1985 and said what he has found in Michigan probably applies elsewhere, too.
"In a general sense it's very, very clear that the weather is extremely dominant in our situation and probably in (Minnesota's) as well," he said. It can make a 10 percent difference in seasonal revenue either way, he said, and the weather is especially important for a successful holiday weekend such as Memorial Day.
"Good weather early in the season is more crucial than later in the season," he said. "If the weather patterns have been good, people are going to say, `Well, this is the year we're going to go up North.'"
Because of the warm spring, Holecek is predicting a record-breaking year in Michigan with double-digit increases in business. The Travel Industry Association predicts that Americans will travel in record numbers throughout the nation.
Holecek also pointed out that if the weather is cold and rainy after visitors reach their destinations, retail stores and restaurants often do well because people can shop and eat indoors. However, visitors might not return the next year if the weather is bad, said Linda Fryer, administrative director of the Ely Chamber of Commerce.
While the warm winter of 1998 made snow shovelers happy, it made many resorters unhappy.
Many businesses that catered to cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and other outdoor enthusiasts who rely on a healthy snow cover saw a downturn in visitors, compared with the snowy winter of 1997. (Places that made their own snow, such as Lutsen Mountains and Spirit Mountain downhill ski areas, did well.)
Dave Parsons, vice president of the Grand Marais Chamber of Commerce and owner of Tomteboda Resort, said he thinks tourism-related businesses saw a 30 percent decrease in business in his area last winter. Lodging tax receipts, which give an indication of hotel and motel room occupancy, were down about 15 percent.
Kathy Rasmussen, owner of Lakewoods Resorts near Cable, Wis., said receipts at her business were down 30 percent last winter. The 10 member communities of the Iron Trail Convention and Visitors Bureau in Minnesota reported a 32 percent decline in lodging tax receipts in March, according to AnGina Huston, the bureau's public relations and advertising manager.
"You have to hope you have a good summer to make up for the winter," said Tim Watson, owner of Harmony Beach Resort and Lodge on Lake Kabetogama near International Falls.
But the fact is that revenue from a lodging room empty for a night is lost forever, as is the price of a meal not served.
Businesses that are associated with outdoor activities seem to be more affected by the weather than those that rely on conventions, meetings and indoor activities.
Weather has far less of an effect on places that cater to meeting and conferences because they are scheduled months or years in advance. That makes a city like Duluth, which hosts 150 conventions a year, far less subject to the whims of Mother Nature. In fact, winter this year was much better than it was in 1997.
"A lot of folks think a destination like Duluth is totally dependent on weather. El Nino did prove that was not true this winter," said Mattson of the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Comparing Duluth hotel-motel receipts for 1997 and 1998, in January they were up 14 percent; in February they were up 16 percent; and in March they were up 9 percent. Food and beverage taxes were also up significantly.
But the winter occupancy rates, even this year, were much lower than they will be in the next few months.
(c) 1998, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.