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Festivals and Events Fuel State and Local Tourism

By Cory Jobe, Director, Illinois Office of Tourism

The power of tourism to fuel state and local economies cannot be understated. Research tells us that one in nine private sector jobs is supported by the $2.1 trillion travel industry nationwide. In Illinois, the travel industry has created jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the state’s employers for more than a decade. Thanks to effective travel promotion, Illinois continues to grow the number of visitors to the state each year. We welcomed 111 million visitors in 2015, and we fully expect 2016 to be another record breaking year. (Note: 2016 figures not yet available at time of publication.)
At the Illinois Office of Tourism, we believe strongly in the travel industry’s ability to bring economic and quality of life benefits to Illinois residents, and we work every day to ensure those benefits are felt in communities all across the state. Our brand new “Up For Amazing” ad campaign, for instance, challenges Illinois visitors to explore the unique cultures and unexpected experiences in all parts of the state. The ads show adventurous travelers immersing themselves in activities and iconic destinations like hiking or rock climbing in Starved Rock State Park and Shawnee National Forest, interacting with history at President Lincoln Historic sites in Springfield, taking road trips along Route 66 or the Great River Road and tasting craft whiskeys at Blaum Brothers distillery in Galena.
Boosting awareness of all the hidden treasures Illinois has to offer is a top priority, and we couldn’t do it without the active support of local tourism partners and stakeholders. Perhaps one of the most successful ways our local Convention and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs) and their hospitality allies incentivize travel to various Illinois destinations is by seizing on festivals and events throughout the year to create unique, can’t-miss opportunities for travelers to experience something new and amazing.
For example, over the past year, a variety of exciting sporting tournaments brought visitors to places like Bloomington, Rockford and Champaign. In December, the Annual Midwest Open Indoor Archery Tournament brought 480 archers and their spectators to the Interstate Center in Bloomington. The tournament lasted two days and brought an estimated $78,000 direct economic impact to the region. The recent Women’s State Bowling Tournament in Champaign produced an estimated $1.3 million in economic impact. In Rockford, the competitive Tough Mudder race brought thousands of out-of-market visitors, both participants and spectators, resulting in $3.3 million in direct spending and $184,232 generated in taxes and fees in 2016. The race will return to Rockford in August 2017.
Local food and wine festivals around Illinois are yet another driver of state tourism and provide a special opportunity to introduce Illinois’ trending wine culture, award-winning cuisine and sought-after agricultural purveyors to epicurean travelers. Anticipated events like the Ottawa Two Rivers Wine Festival or bon appetit’s Chicago Gourmet bring foodies from across the Midwest to Illinois each year. Thanks in part to these festivals and their ability to drive awareness of Illinois’ wine industry, the economic impact of Illinois wine has grown to more than $700 million over the last decade.
The holiday season in Illinois is also an important opportunity to produce festive events in your region. Moreover, it is a chance to drive increased travel during the colder fall and winter months, which is typically a slower time for state tourism. In the fall, agricultural communities across Illinois are uniquely positioned to be the setting of cherished fall traditions like apple picking, pumpkin carving and corn mazes. And with the trend of agritourism on the rise, these unique attractions may start seeing visitors in other seasons of the year.
During the 2016 Christmas season, Naperville hosted the Christkindlmarket at the Naper Settlement, a unique outdoor marketplace featuring German and European food, high-quality gifts and festive holiday entertainment. More than 208,000 guests visited the market, 78% of which came from outside Naperville. In addition to its significant economic impact, the 21-day event had significant public relations value – achieving increased news media attention, social media interactions and website page views. Overall, the town was able to reach 98,618 people with this meaningful and memorable event.
These recurring events and festivals create lasting memories and traditions, and introduce tourists to a variety of destinations in our state. Equally important, however, are the once-in-a-blue-moon anniversaries and natural phenomena that local regions can capitalize on to drive visitors. In August, for instance, there will be a total solar eclipse, and NASA has proclaimed the southern part of our state as the best place across the country to witness this rare spectacle. The Carbondale, Southernmost and Williamson County CVBs have done a great job creating an online presence for astronomy enthusiasts and stargazing travelers and we look forward to reports of that event’s economic reward.
And next year marks the Illinois Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of our state and a critical opportunity in terms of its potential to drive increased interest and attention to Illinois history and culture. More information about planned events and ways local CVBs and tourism partners can get involved or host Bicentennial events of their own can be explored online at https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/illinois200/Pages/default.aspx.
Whether it’s a holiday, anniversary, sporting event, wine festival or singular events like the solar eclipse, I urge all Illinois municipalities and regions to build measurement into their event planning and strategy. Taking the time to accurately measure and report the economic impact of festivals and events will in turn allow the Illinois Office of Tourism to continue supporting and improving these events from year to year, thereby bringing even more attention, events and dollars to our state. When we can demonstrate the economic power of travel, we help prove its value to the state and increase our ability to offer more reasons to enjoy Illinois.
Cory Jobe is Director at the Illinois Office of Tourism. Contact Cory at (312) 814-4732 or through the Tourism website at www.enjoyillinois.com.