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Wisconsin Dells Sees Chance At Record Tourism Season As People Plan Post-Vaccination Vacations

One Of Wisconsin's Key Tourism Destinations Is Already Bustling

People float in light blue water in yellow and green inner tubes.
Guests at the Wilderness Resort float in a lazy river Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in the Wisconsin Dells. Angela Major/WPR

The amphitheater on Lake Delton that was home to the Tommy Bartlett Show is empty now. There’s a sign that reads “Celebrating 65 years livin’ the dream,” and an old water ski leaning against a garage.

The landmark water skiing tourist attraction in Wisconsin Dells made it four more summers past that anniversary before it closed in 2020 due to COVID-19. In September, the exhibition’s owner announced the closure would be permanent.

It was the highest-profile Wisconsin tourist attraction lost to the pandemic. But in Wisconsin Dells today, it looks more like the exception than the rule. Just weeks after Memorial Day weekend kicked off the tourist season, resorts and water parks are full, and businesses are gearing up for what could be a record-breaking year.

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During a recent visit to the Wilderness Resort — a sprawling, 600-acre site with eight separate water parks — Thomas Billups waited at the bottom of a water slide while his son and his niece took turns riding down. They came from suburban Chicago, where the kids spent the school year learning virtually and Billups worked from home. He said he’s still adjusting to being out around crowds.

“It doesn’t feel natural just yet,” Billups said. “I’m kind of working my way into it, slowly.”

Another visitor, Brandon Hensley, brought his wife and daughter from St. Louis. They also put off travel in 2020 until the adults had gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. If anything, Hensley said he was surprised by how easy it was to feel comfortable being on his first post-vaccination vacation.

“You would think it would feel more weird,” he said. “But I think humans are really good at adjusting really fast. Within the first day that you’re around everybody, and it feels normal real quick.”

As more and more people get vaccinated and as reported COVID-19 cases continue to decline both in Wisconsin and nationally, tourist centers across the state are already seeing increased demand for lodging and activities. In Wisconsin Dells, a city of fewer than 3,000 people where tourism is by far the biggest industry, that is coming as a welcome relief.

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After A Contentious 2020, ‘It Is Going To Be A Good Year’

Last year’s pandemic shutdown “put a scare in a lot of people,” said Joe Eck, chief operating officer for Wilderness Resort. When businesses reopened in early June 2020, in some ways it felt like starting from scratch.

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Many of the Dells’ large businesses worked with public health authorities on operations plans intended to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. But behind the scenes, elected leaders and some business owners chafed at the restrictions.

The health officer of Sauk County, where most of the Dells’ resorts are located, resigned in October, saying he’d been undermined and attacked by elected officials and business leaders. Workers across the city said they faced daily arguments with visitors about masks, social distancing and other safety measures.

Today, many workers said the anxieties and frictions of the 2020 season already feel very far away.

On a sweltering June day, the water parks at the Wilderness and the nearby Kalahari Resort were full, and there was a lineup of traffic on the city’s main drags. Eck said reservations for June, July and August are running about 12 percent higher than they were at the same time in 2019 — when Wisconsin had a historically strong year for tourism.

“It is going to be a good year,” Eck said.

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In 2020, tourism in Wisconsin took nearly a 30 percent hit. Direct visitor spending fell from $13.7 billion in 2019 to $9.8 billion last year, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Sauk County lost only about 16 percent of its direct visitor spending, with spending dropping from $1.1 billion to $958 million.

“We still had an OK summer,” said John Chastan, general manager of the Kalahari. “It wasn’t as strong as most years, but even with all the COVID restrictions that were in place, a lot of people were able to come to the Dells and get some sort of a family vacation.”

Many of the vacation activities at the Dells are outdoors and therefore low-risk for COVID-19 infection. Public health authorities found chlorine in pools is effective at killing the virus that causes COVID-19, which meant the Dells’ water parks were generally considered safe. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising against travel for most of last year, and the Dells relies on Midwesterners taking interstate family vacations.

The part of the Dells’ economy that might lag the most, Chastan said, is conventions. That’s about half of the Kalahari’s business, and most annual conventions have already been canceled or taken virtual for 2021. He expects that part of the business won’t rebound fully until 2022.

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Dells Employers’ Biggest Challenge: Finding Workers

This year, the main problem for businesses here is one that is common in Wisconsin across many sectors: It’s hard to find enough workers. That is compounded in the Dells by a dearth this year of the foreign college students who typically come to work in Wisconsin as part of a cultural exchange program.

“We keep hearing over and over again from the employer side of things that they won’t be able to fully open all of their areas and their restaurants, or they’ll have to cut back on services, possibly, if they don’t have enough employees,” said Stacie Tollaksen, who works for Intrax, a company that places foreign students with American employers.

It’s a program that has long helped to fill a seasonal gap for Wisconsin Dells. Tollaksen said there’s no shortage of students who want to participate. The problem is the pandemic-created backlog at many foreign embassies, which in most countries still aren’t fully staffed.

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In a typical summer, about 3,600 foreign workers come to the Wisconsin Dells. Employers said they’re hoping to reach half the allotment they usually get.

In the absence of guest workers, employers are increasing incentives for domestic hires, and cross-training workers to fill in gaps where possible.

“There hasn’t been minimum-wage jobs in the Dells for years,” Kalahari’s Chastan said. “Our average hourly wage is up quite a bit, which comes from us increasing the wages of our current employees and hiring at higher wages. We’re at a different place than we were even in 2019.”

By far the largest expense in the hospitality business is its labor force, Chastan said, which means with those higher wages come higher prices, too.

So far, though, price hikes are not stopping visitors from coming.

At the Wilderness, Thomas Billups’ niece, Jada Walton, had just come down a waterslide called Halley’s Comet. She said she was having a great vacation.

“It feels good,” Jada said. “It feels nice to finally be back to kinda-sorta normal.”

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