Twenty years ago when you thought of Wisconsin tourism, you probably thought of the Wisconsin Dells. Now it’s a statewide business that generates an estimated $20 billion each year, along with 193,000 jobs.
Local business owners and entrepreneurs are working to position themselves to capture part of the tourism pie. And, the Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation Department at UW-La Crosse is working to help them find success.
The department formed the Tourism Research Institute in 2017 after creating an emphasis in tourism for recreation management majors in 2016.
Plunkett says this translates into increased opportunities for students to pursue tourism-related careers. “There are already numerous career opportunities, but those opportunities will increase as attractions grow or are developed, facilities like hotels are built and destination marketers continue to target new markets,” he explains. “People keep traveling, so we can expect to see even more tourism-related career opportunities.”“The field of tourism is certainly growing,” says Daniel Plunkett, assistant professor and the institute’s director. “I think we’ve seen it locally with the addition of several new hotels. State-wise, tourism has hit an all-time high $20 billion economic impact. Internationally tourism keeps growing and is projected to reach 1.8 billion international travelers by 2030.”
In its first year, the UWL Tourism Research Institute has worked to become known. In February, the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau had the institute conduct a study of visitors attending the MOSES organic farming conference. Plunkett hopes the institute can show what visitors attending the popular conference appreciate about the La Crosse area. This summer, he and students will gather information from visitors attending Tomah’s national tractor pull for the Monroe County Agriculture Society.
Plunket attended the Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism in March and spoke with several organizations interested in research. “We discussed everything from economic impact studies, to bike trail use and placemaking,” he says. “There are a lot of exciting opportunities potentially in the pipeline.”
New major emphasis provides unique, exciting opportunities
UWL Recreation Management faculty officially launched the new tourism emphasis in fall 2016. Currently, 13 recreation management students are pursuing a tourism emphasis. It’s a unique program in the UW System – only UW-Stout has a bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. Locally, Western Technical College recently launched a hospitality program.
Plunkett says UWL’s tourism emphasis is unique because it draws on the strong, solid foundation of the recreation management major including leadership and programming, risk management, and diversity.
In addition to that core coursework, Plunkett says students take four tourism-specific courses that introduce them to foundational knowledge about visitors and destinations, revenue management practices, event tourism, and sustainability. “The courses were chosen to provide students with knowledge and skills specifically applicable in almost every tourism-related organization,” he notes.
The department’s foundation of hands-on experience is key too, says Plunkett. “As a part of the meetings, conventions and event planning class last fall, students developed and facilitated an event for Oktoberfest,” he explains. “It provided a first-hand learning opportunity where students could create and facilitate a memorable experience for visitors.” See more about the event.
Hands-on, volunteering possibilities attractive to students
UWL Senior Mark Davis, one of the tourism emphasis majors, says despite the fact the emphasis is in its infancy, it offers a variety of options for volunteer, internship and career opportunities.
“What I love about the variety is that a student doesn’t have to decide right away what they want to do,” notes Davis. “Having a chance to take some of the courses, meet professionals and having volunteering experience can help them decide what they want to do. It is exactly how I decided my career choice.”
Davis hopes to work for a chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau in Wisconsin. The La Crosse native is currently getting hands-on experience as an intern with the Fond du Lac Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. He recently returned from the state tourism conference excited and with greater insight into tourism.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the conference was learning about how today’s tourism customers are experiential junkies,” Davis says. “Tourists want to have a memorable experience. They want to have an amazing experience that will have them raving about the location, organization, tour and more. It’s up to tourism professionals to provide those experiences.”
Fellow student Ross Ramsey appreciates the small class sizes and interaction with faculty of UWL’s tourism emphasis.
“What’s good about small classes is that there is a lot more time for group discussion and it makes it a lot easier to get to know your classmates,” says Ramsey, a junior from Beloit. “I also love that we take a lot of field trips to different recreation agencies and businesses around La Crosse. We pride ourselves on getting first-hand experience in recreation while we are undergrads. Getting to visit so many places has taught me so much about my field and it has helped me decide which career path I want to take.”
Ramsey is hoping for an internship either at a Wisconsin convention and visitors bureau, or an amusement park in Ohio. He, too, attended the state tourism conference and returned with a new appreciation for what Wisconsin has to offer.
“I am a guy who is open to live anywhere and have flirted with the idea of moving across the country or even across the world on various occasions,” Ramsey says. “However, after this conference, it might be hard for me to ever leave this great state.”