Stay Longer in the Kickapoo

CALS researchers help extend the tourist season in Wisconsin’s scenic west

The Kickapoo Valley is a picturesque area of western Wisconsin that attracts many visitors during the summer. But to improve economic development throughout this rural region, many residents and business owners want to lengthen the tourism season—and CALS/UW–Extension researchers are helping them make plans to do so.

“We’re fairly busy in the peak season, but tourism drops off in the shoulder months,” says Sadie Urban, the events coordinator for the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,500-acre natural and recreational area. “There’s still a lot to do in the area during those times, but we don’t really see the tourists then.”

To form a plan of action to attract new visitors, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve applied for funding help from the Kickapoo Valley Reforestation Fund, also known as the Ralph Nuzum Fund. The fund supports projects that enhance the ecological, economic and social well-being of Kickapoo Valley residents.

As part of the grant, Urban and her colleagues needed a University of Wisconsin partner—and Bret Shaw, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, was the right fit for the project.

“I’m interested in the intersection of tourism, sustainability and economic development, so this project was right in my wheelhouse of market research and helping rural communities,” says Shaw, who also has an appointment with UW–Extension as an environmental communications specialist.

Shaw started work in the valley by talking with stakeholders and identifying the goal of attracting tourists during the shoulder months. He and graduate student Heather Akin then surveyed Kickapoo Valley visitors and wrote a report about tourist demographics, behaviors and feelings. The full report is available at http://go.wisc.edu/kickapoo.

Community organizations in the Kickapoo Valley are using Shaw’s findings to influence their marketing materials and plan new events. Research indicated that excitement, adventure and food-related experiences would attract visitors. An immediate response was the Kickapoo Reserve Tromp and Chomp, a new trail run held in May featuring post-race meals by local chefs and growers. Urban says the event brought at least $6,400 tourist dollars into local economies—and that it will be held annually.

In addition to consulting on new events, Shaw is involved in the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series, which introduces valley residents to experts on topics such as agriculture, wildlife and sustainability. Shaw also helped establish an Extension video channel to share those lectures with a broader audience and showcase the valley in general. Videos are available at http://uwexvideochannel.org/.

Shaw is optimistic that these ongoing collaborations between UW–Madison, UW–Extension and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will produce the desired increase in tourism and economic development.

“Each time we attract a new visitor, that person spends around $140 if they stay overnight, so we’d like to see these events continue to help local businesses and residents,” Shaw says.

PHOTO—Natural beauty: A rock bluff along the Kickapoo River, one of the area’s many draws for tourists.