At one of Dubuque’s principal tourist attractions, COVID-19’s negative impacts crested for two and a half months.
That 10-week, pandemic-prompted shutdown created problems for National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, temporarily dropping its full-time staffing by approximately 20%, hindering the facility’s ability to address fixed expenses and sending some of its leading attractions into a tailspin.
“(COVID-19) had a tremendous impact on our organization,” said Kurt Strand, president and CEO of Dubuque County Historical Society and its properties, including the museum.
The museum shut its doors to visitors in March 2020, as restrictions on indoor gatherings locked into place in a bid to stem the rising level of COVID-19 cases.
“There really wasn’t an area of our organization that wasn’t impacted by (COVID-19),” Strand said. “We lost one-third of our (admission) revenue for an entire year. It impacted all of our guest services — the grill, the museum stores, the school programs — and that was very difficult for us. Unlike other organizations, you can’t furlough fish and animals. They have to be fed and taken care of.”
The facility’s rambunctious otters — perennial favorites for visitors because of their playful antics — exhibited signs of pandemic-induced stress themselves.
“They really missed human interaction,” Strand said. “The otters were especially what we were worried about because they’re young and they eat a lot. They didn’t change their eating habits (during the shutdown), but they slept more. Our otters slept a lot and gained weight.”
As vaccinations increase, COVID-19 cases drop and related restrictions recede, local tourism insiders see signs of at least a partial recovery this summer for the industry.
“People are anxious to get out,” said Robert Moses, president and CEO of Prairie du Chien (Wis.) Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our past few weekends in Prairie du Chien have been thriving. Our downtown is very busy; our restaurants are busy; our bars are busy. We are very encouraged.”
‘EVERYTHING CAME TO A COMPLETE STOP’
When it struck the tri-state area last spring, the coronavirus pandemic hammered what had been a robust local tourism industry.
“Honestly, in our industry, you have to be able to travel and you have to be able to gather, and neither one of those was happening in the pandemic,” said Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque. “Everything came to a complete stop. Whoever would have thought we would have seen that? Not only here regionally, but nationally and internationally? People just weren’t going anywhere.”
Rahe, who has spent 30 years in the tourism industry, has watched intently as the Dubuque area claimed its place among the top destinations in Iowa and the Upper Midwest.
“Dubuque has been on a tremendous roll during the past 15 to 20 years,” he said.
Improvements in the Port of Dubuque, along Main Street, in the historic Millwork District and on Chaplain Schmitt Island helped fuel local tourism in the city, increasing the Dubuque area’s profile as a destination, Rahe said.
“Others have their niche. Des Moines is a very strong destination, but it’s more (attributed to) sports — 44% of their (hotel occupancy) is generated off of sports, either youth sports, high school, collegiate,” he said. “But for us, Dubuque is a destination for couples, families and individuals. We’re lucky. A lot of (the tourism growth) has to do with public-private partnerships that have been formed throughout the years, but also it has to do with our proximity with the major markets. We’re not that far from Chicago. We’re not that far from Milwaukee. All of that is within easy driving distance.”
Rahe said the entire area can be a draw for tourists.
“Look at Dubuque County as a whole, with Dubuque, and Dyersville — with the Field of Dreams (movie site) and the Basilica and the National Farm Toy Museum — and you have Breitbach’s (Country Dining, in Balltown, Iowa), a legendary restaurant,” he said. “Plus, Galena (Ill.) is not that far away. Southwest Wisconsin is not that far away. The (Mississippi River) itself, and the River Road, is such a huge draw.”
Prior to 2020, the Dubuque area drew about 2 million visitors per year, generating an economic impact of more than $350 million annually.
“All of this was in place, and (local tourism) was growing, and then the pandemic hit,” Rahe said.
In Dubuque, the pandemic helped send hotel occupancy rates plummeting, with an April 2020 rate of 16%.
“Typically, we’re in the 55% to 58% (range),” Rahe said.
Lodging tax collection gauges tourism in Jo Daviess County, Ill., including in visitor magnet Galena.
Collection in April and May 2020 fell by 86% and 80%, respectively, compared to the corresponding months in 2019.
In the Prairie du Chien area, people stopping at the Wisconsin Welcome center provide a measure of visitors.
“What we saw (in 2020) was that the number of people stopping at our center was down 50%,” Moses said. “Usually, we get about 40,000 people (per year) stopping at the center.”
The drop in visitor numbers caused an economic ripple effect in the area.
“Not only the attractions, but the lodging, the bars, the restaurants, the venues were all affected,” Rahe said. “There was uncertainty about what was going to happen. How long (were the pandemic-related struggles) going to take, and what was it going to look like on the other side?”
Rahe said the eastern Iowa region lost about 7% to 8% of its bars and restaurants as a result of the pandemic.
“We were surprised that it wasn’t more,” he said. “Other parts of the country were devastated. A lot of that (local business retention) was because of the governmental help they were able to get ... local and state and federal.”
‘NEVER IMAGINED ALL OF THE CHANGES’
The river museum began to prepare for a slow return of visitors during the facility’s closure.
“We created a cross-functional team we called the ‘Coronavengers’ to put together a reopening plan, with phases of reopening,” Strand said.
The plan included seeking local, state and federal COVID-19 financial assistance to pay staff and other expenses.
The museum participated in the State of Iowa’s shared work program. Full-time staff members began working four days per week and received Iowa unemployment benefits on the fifth day.
“That helped us save money and provided staff with some benefits,” Strand said.
The museum has 43 full-time staff members and about 60 part-time staffers, so in total, it has the equivalent of about 58 to 60 full-time employees, according to Strand.
“We did not lose any staff, due to the state’s shared workforce program,” Strand said. “Going forward, our (full-time equivalents) will be similar to pre-pandemic levels.”
While stabilizing staff numbers, Strand said, museum officials turned their attention to safeguarding potential visitors by establishing protocols for sanitation, masking and social-distancing requirements.
The museum reopened on the fourth weekend in May 2020, with the safety protocols in place.
Strand said the disposition of the animals immediately improved.
“When we came back, the stingrays swarmed toward the people because they really enjoy this component,” he said. “We have a snake exhibit, and all of a sudden, the snakes were moving around like crazy — it was noticeable — when guests were there.”
Even the otters shed their pandemic weight gain.
The museum’s economic well-being also began to regain strength, albeit more slowly.
“When we reopened to limited admissions, we were paying some of our bills but not all of our bills, which caused us to try things to keep our expenses as flat as possible,” Strand said.
Some of the methods required creativity.
“Our maintenance team made all of the plexiglass for us (to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission),” Strand said. “Ideas were coming from all over our organization. For our touch tank, we weren’t able to touch (the animals) initially, but then as we were able to open up, our education and living collections teams got together and created a way to do that safely. They put up some stanchions to separate families and a waiting area where guests could come in and it wasn’t too crowded. I would have never had imagined all of the changes we went through because of (COVID-19).”
The Dubuque area’s nascent tourism recovery began slowly during the summer of 2020, with indoor venues at limited capacity and outdoor attractions benefitting from readymade social distancing attributes.
“We saw it last summer,” Rahe said. “People from Chicago and those areas would come here. They wanted to get away. Last summer, there was a lot of outdoor activity.”
People ventured into parks and onto trails.
In Galena, annual signature events were canceled by the pandemic, including Galena Country Fair, a weekend event that typically draws more than 10,000 visitors to Grant Park.
While large events were scrapped, officials sought to accommodate individual and family visitors to Galena. Officials closed a stretch of Main Street so restaurants could set up tables and chairs outside.
“Outdoor dining was huge for us,” said Rose Noble, president and CEO of Galena Country Tourism. “We had no indoor dining for a while. We have outdoor dining again this year.”
Moses said natural attractions also began to revive local tourism during the summer and fall of 2020.
“Our fall was very promising. A lot of people were doing outdoor activities,” he said. “We were very encouraged.”
Guest logs at Prairie du Chien’s welcome center indicated an influx of visitors from areas such as central Iowa.
“We were surprised, but they wanted to get outdoors,” Moses said.
A RECIPE FOR RECOVERY
“There are definitely businesses that have been struggling,” Noble said. “But with us being a rural location — a drive-to destination — those are the first (tourism) markets that are going to rebound.”
Rahe said the first half of 2021 has shown that tourism is picking up in the area.
“We’re seeing it coming back,” he said. “This year, in April, our hotel occupancy rates were at 50%. So, we’re still a little bit under (the normal rate) but dramatically better than 2020.
Julien Dubuque International Film Festival successfully returned as a live event this spring after being held virtually in 2020, and Vintage Torque Fest was among the events staged at Dubuque County Fairgrounds.
“Our weekends are busy,” Rahe said. “Where we’re lagging as a community — and this is a nationwide thing — is midweek business because business travel has not come back yet.”
After canceling its Music in the Gardens outdoor concert series in 2020, Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens welcomed 1,000 people to its first concert this summer.
“Now, it is time for tourism to kick back in,” said Sandi Helgerson, the arboretum’s executive director. “We have at least 40 busloads of people coming our way this year.”
Excursion boats that visit Dubuque in late summer and fall are due to return this year and will include the arboretum among the regular stops for passengers.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Helgerson said. “We have a lot of volunteer tour guides preparing to give tours.”
Moses said he expects river-based leisure to continue drawing large numbers of people to southwest Wisconsin this year.
However, the continued closure of four popular historical sites won’t help fuel the area’s tourism recovery.
The Wisconsin Historical Society earlier this year announced that four properties closed by the pandemic in 2020 — First Capitol, in Belmont; Pendarvis, in Mineral Point; Stonefield, in Cassville; and Villa Louis, in Prairie du Chien — will be among those remaining closed until April 2022, as the agency deals with budget cuts and pandemic-related shortfalls.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Moses said. “I think they should have waited to see what the start of 2021 would bring (in terms of decreased pandemic impacts). Hopefully, we can encourage the historical society to revisit their decision.”
Area state lawmakers have been lobbying Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to allocate funding to open the sites yet this year.
Meanwhile, Noble said although a tourism recovery is underway, it is not yet complete.
“Full recovery is not going to be here for a couple of years — not until consumers are confident so the (tourism) market can be operated as it was,” she said. “We’re asking visitors for patience. Businesses are still trying to navigate this pandemic.”
Noble said marketing on a broad geographic scale will help bring area tourism back to pre-pandemic levels.
“The recipe for recovery is advocacy,” she said.
Galena traditionally uses tourism matching grants to promote the city nationally and internationally.
“We have a presence in England, China, Japan and Mexico,” Noble said.
Rahe pointed out one event on this year’s calendar has the potential to draw international visitors and increase the area’s global profile — the Major League Baseball game set for Aug. 12 adjacent to the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville.
“That (game) is substantial, being the first (Major League) baseball game played in the entire state of Iowa,” he said. “What a unique opportunity. We will have the sporting world’s attention for one night.”