Spyro Condos, a longtime restaurant owner on Lake Geneva, recently met with a roomful of fellow business owners sharing their fears that soaring inflation rates and soaring oil prices essence does cause a summer of discontent for the local tourism industry.
A native of Lake Geneva, former mayor and third-generation restaurateur, Condos, 68, says he understands their concerns. After all, the cost of food and supplies to supply his restaurant, Speedo’s Harborside Pub & Grill, has soared 30% in recent months, making it harder to turn a profit.
But after more than four decades in the restaurant business, Condos said it’s certain the economic storms that arrived this summer will reveal a silver lining for Wisconsin’s resort community, just across the border with Illinois.
“I said to them, ‘My prediction is that we’re going to have the best summer ever at Lake Geneva, because of our proximity to Chicago, and with the gas prices so high and the issues with the airlines. , a lot of people are just not going to want to travel that far this summer,” Condos said.
From small business owners like Condos to resort and water park operators with multimillion-dollar budgets, pent-up demand from Chicago-area travelers who halted vacation plans in the first two summers of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to result in a stellar summer for the tourism industry.
With gas prices soaring to $6 a gallon, spiraling inflation driving up the cost of everything from groceries to garden supplies, and severe worker shortages in the United States, travelers and tourism businesses in Illinois and adjacent states will also face a trifecta of challenges this summer.
Yet the economic hardship, while significant, has in many ways been a boon to sectors of the local tourism industry that benefit from the sticker shock that has diverted budget-conscious travelers from faraway destinations and back old-fashioned – fast commutes closer to home.
“With gas prices so high, what we are seeing is increased business this summer from families and couples who still want to vacation together but realize they can travel a much shorter distance. while enjoying a great escape,” said Dave Sekeres. , general manager of the Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, Wisconsin, and president of Visit Lake Geneva.
Formerly known as Lake Lawn Lodge by legions of families from years past, the historic resort that opened in 1878 has also found a creative solution to the nationwide shortage of seasonal workers this summer – hiring nearly three dozen international students from all over the world via the United States. Department of State J-1 Visitor Exchange Visa Program.
Visiting international students are spending 16 weeks working at Lake Lawn this summer in jobs ranging from food and beverage servers and housekeeping to customer service and recreation attendants, Sekeres said.
“It would be nearly impossible to operate the resort this summer without these extra workers, and for students, the fastest way to learn American culture and language is to work at a vacation destination,” Sekeres said.
“Everything is going great this summer… Our bookings are strong, and not just weekends and July 4 holidays, but also midweek,” Sekeres said.
Sekeres’ optimistic forecast is backed up by a recent AAA report which forecasts that 47.9 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home during the July 4 holiday weekend, Thursday through July 4.
According to AAA, the 3.7% increase from 2021 will bring “travel volumes just below those seen in 2019”, and surprisingly, car travel “will set a new record despite historically high gas prices. high with 42 million people hitting the road”. officials said.
“The volume of travelers we expect to see on Independence Day is a sure sign that summer travel is kicking into high gear,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel, said in a statement. .
“Earlier this year we started to see travel demand increase and it is not decreasing. People are ready for a break and despite the higher costs, they are finding ways to still take that much-needed vacation,” Twidale said.
Although national average gasoline prices top the $5 mark, AAA officials said car travel is expected to break previous records, suggesting that “recent problems with air travel and concerns Persistent cancellations and delays may be responsible for this increase.”
The share of people traveling by air will be the lowest since 2011, officials said.
The skyrocketing popularity of the road trip this summer for Chicago-area residents is evident to Joe Eck, COO of Wilderness Resorts and Waterparks in the Wisconsin Dells, who said that while a growing number of visitors were already returning to the water park from 2021, so far the summer of 2022 suggests “local appeal is soaring”.
“It’s hot out there, and our phones are ringing right now,” said Eck, who credits his 450 international students working this summer under the J-1 visa program with ensuring resorts are fully staffed. staff on July 4th. weekend.
Angelica Berrocal Alvarez, a Colombian student on a J-1 visa, said she was spending her second summer working in Wilderness, where she was recently promoted to aquatics supervisor.
“I wanted to get out of my bubble and do something different,” said Berrocal Alvarez, 23, a civil engineering and geoscience student at Universidad de Los Andes, whose housing in Wisconsin Dells is subsidized by the complex. .
“I’m starting to practice my English, which is improving, and I can take those skills back to my country, and I’ll experience a different culture as well,” Berrocal Alvarez said.
Romy Snyder, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the resort community’s proximity to Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul makes it a natural choice for families looking to vacation closer to home this summer.
Wisconsin Dells, dubbed the ‘water capital of the world’, receives about 4 million visitors a year and will rely on about 4,000 J-1 international students this summer to bolster the ranks of workers at the plethora of resorts and parks aquatics in the region. , Snyder said.
“We’re primarily a drive-through destination, and even when we’ve seen gas prices go up over the years, we haven’t seen that lead to fewer visits,” Snyder said.
“It’s as if the opposite is happening – travelers who may have been planning a cross-country trip are now seeing us as the more budget-friendly vacation of choice,” Snyder said.
Galena Area Chamber of Commerce Director Barb Hocker said the dining room at the historic DeSoto House hotel was buzzing with guests attending a meeting on Tuesday morning – a day of the week that is usually quiet in the hospitality sector.
“We’re having a great summer, but we’ve also been busy the last two years during COVID, as people weren’t flying and they were looking for some type of outdoor place they could stay in an Airbnb, away from the crowds, and golfing, horseback riding, hiking, zip-lining and many other activities,” Hocker said.
This summer, Hocker expects tourism in this historic Illinois town about three hours northwest of Chicago to be “as good as 2019, if not better.”
“With high gas prices, we’re lucky to be in a good location because from towns like Naperville, you can almost get here and come back with a full tank of gas,” Hocker said.
Stephanie Klett, President and CEO of Visit Lake Geneva, greeted tourists one recent morning from the town’s pleasant visitor center, where a promotional flyer proclaims: “One-Tank Getaways: Five Ideas For How To Spend Your Summer in Lake Geneva,” citing its proximity to Chicago, 83 miles; Milwaukee, 50 miles; and Rockford, 54 miles.
“We ironically expect the best summer ever,” Klett said. “It’s going to be a record summer, because even with high fuel prices, Lake Geneva has become the Newport of the Midwest and the Hamptons of Chicago.”
The summer 2022 trend for vacations closer to home appealed to Rolling Meadows residents Heidi and Mike Brown and their four children, ages 14, 12, 10 and 9, who recently spent three days to visit the beach and other attractions of Lake Geneva.
“Last summer we went to the Bahamas because we got a great deal and it was very affordable for us,” Heidi Brown said.
But in recent months, household budgets have been squeezed by rising costs, including spending $400 to $600 a week on groceries, she said.
“We knew it was going to be really expensive to fly somewhere or take a big road trip this summer, and Lake Geneva has been just wonderful,” Brown said.
The family spent two nights in a suite at The Cove in late June and spent a recent morning frolicking on Lake Geneva’s Riviera Beach – an experience that brought back warm memories of Brown’s childhood trips to the resort community. .
“There’s tons of things for families to do here, and it’s all within walking distance,” Brown said.
“Kids love eating ice cream at Scoops and Kilwins and ordering non-alcoholic pina coladas at The Cove’s pool bar, which makes them feel really special,” she said.