Summer tourism numbers mixedby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — A recent state survey shows that while many hotels saw fewer guests this summer, campground operators say business was up, and festivals across the state drew record crowds.
The survey shows many vacationers looked for affordable getaways and stuck closer to home.
The lakeside patio at Sha Sha's Resort near International Falls offers a great view of Rainy Lake. But on this day, there are only a few lunchtime visitors on the patio.
Former Minnesotan Valada Sandwick and her husband are enjoying cocktails in the end-of-summer sunshine. The couple lives in Texas now, but they've been traveling across the country most of the summer. Sandwick says it was easy to see there were fewer tourists on the roads.
"When you're traveling, you see all the RVs and the trailers," Sandwick said. "There's not near what there was out on the road. We'd pull up in front of a hotel, call on the telephone into that hotel. Yes, they had room. You couldn't have done that a couple of years ago."
The restaurant and bar business at Sha Sha's was down some, but bar manager Randy Ciminski said things were steady--the resort's eight cabins were full all season. Ciminiski said because much of their restaurant business comes from boaters coming off of Rainy Lake, the cooler temperatures this summer may have hurt the most.
"The weather, the weather, the weather. We seat 200 people out here, outside, and if the boat traffic is down, the chairs are empty," he said. "And when it wasn't raining it was windy. And when it wasn't windy or raining, it was cold."
Ciminski said that although he saw visitors from Canada, Iowa, Nebraska and Louisiana this summer, there may have been fewer out-of-state tourists. He did notice more guests coming from right here in Minnesota.
"There are people out and about. There are still people taking vacations," he said.
The state tourism office does this snapshot survey each year. More than 300 businesses responded. The survey shows that small resorts like Sha Sha remained popular this summer.
But larger resorts that cater to corporate groups and conferences saw a downturn in bookings. Occupancy and revenue were down at the majority of Minnesota hotels, especially in the Twin Cities area, where business travel was down.
John Edman, director of the state's Explore Minnesota Tourism office, said this summer was unlike anything he'd seen for a long, long time.
"It was a very different summer," he said. "We are finding that people are traveling, but the way they're traveling is much different."
The survey shows people took shorter trips, spent less money and often waited until the last minute to make their plans. Edman said many travelers shopped around for bargains much more than in the past.
"Our industry has definitely told us that customers...are asking them about rates," he said. "In fact, they're even bargaining with them about rates, and some of the things that they are participating in also reflect the fact that people are looking to save some dollars."
Edman said inexpensive things like camping, fishing, festivals and amateur sporting events were popular this summer. Annual permit sales at state parks are up 13 percent from last year, and the sale of daily passes at state parks saw a similar increase.
Some survey statistics show things are worse than last year. In 2008, 41 percent reported that occupancy was down. This year, that number is 50 percent. And while last year 38 percent of respondents reported that revenue was down, this summer 51 percent reported a drop.)
In spite of the toll the recession has taken on the travel industry, just over half of the tourism survey respondents reported stable financial health. Another 14 percent indicated their business was growing. Edman says that's good news for Minnesota's $11 billion dollar tourism industry.
"Yes, the glass is also half empty and there are some that are having some challenges, but the number of people that reported positive business conditions is about the same this year as it was last year, and that was a rather surprising, bright side in the survey," he said.
The leisure and hospitality industry employs more than 248,000 people in Minnesota. Businesses expect the summer's travel trends to continue into the fall.
- All Things Considered, 09/04/2009, 4:50 p.m.