Room taxes, a tourism barometer, showing growth

By McLean Bennett

May 9, 2019

 Ron Whitten smiles as he watches the final round of the U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills in 2017. The golf event was an economic windfall for the West Bend area, which has seen continued growth in its tourism economy even after the last professional golfer turned in his scorecard that year.
Conley Media File Photo

Hosting a professional golf tournament has consequences.

Big ones. Good ones. Green ones.

When Erin Hills in 2017 opened its tee boxes and putting greens to professional golfers and their caddies — and transformed just about everything else but its fairways and bunkers into spectator seating — the West Bend area’s hotels scored a collective birdie.

Make that an eagle.

The amount of money the city of West Bend collected that year in room taxes — a surcharge tacked onto local guests’ hotel rates — jumped conspicuously. In 2016, the tax collection stood at barely $369,000. In 2017, it jumped to well above $385,000, according to numbers provided this week by the city’s finance department.

It’s not hard to imagine why, given the hordes of fans — more than 200,000 of them — who’d gathered to watch Brooks Koepke score a nationally televised championship under Holy Hill’s iconic twin spires. Thousands more people showed up to volunteer at the event.

They all needed to sleep somewhere.

“That had a huge impact,” Craig Farrell, the West Bend Area Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, said of the windfall- like effect the Erin Hills championship two years ago had on the area’s tourism economy.

And that economy hasn’t slowed down since the last pro golfer turned in his scorecard. West Bend’s room tax collection in 2018 soared to nearly $390,000 — even more than the year prior. And while he doesn’t discount the possibility that increasing room rates at area hotels could have driven some of that jump, Farrell said he doubts that’s the only explanation.

It’s likely the area is simply seeing more tourists. And that’s a trend he and others would like to see continue.

It’s a trend that likely will continue, if a slate of big-time events primed to draw visitors from out of town and out of the state live up to their billing.

First, there’s the Democratic National Convention, which is scheduled to bring a political spotlight on downtown Milwaukee next year. And while Farrell has said he doesn’t expect any of the convention attendees will book rooms in West Bend-area hotels, he said other travelers headed to southeastern Wisconsin will likely lodge here to avoid Milwaukee’s crowded inns.

Then, Erin Hills will get two more opportunities to reprise its role as host to high-profile golfers. The U.S. Golf Association announced recently it plans to stage the U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open championships there in 2022 and 2025, respectively.

Other attractions

Farrell said the area has enough other attractions, though, to keep tourism humming between those big events. He pointed to West Bend’s Museum of Wisconsin Art, whose marketing efforts aimed at drawing people to the area, he said, have shown results. Ditto for the city’s Germanfest, West Bend’s annual ode to all things Teutonic that’s slated to run for four days this August.

Then there’s the niche “geocaching” event that Farrell himself helped launch more than a decade ago — and that’s grown into an annual highlight for techie aficionados who turn out to compete in local scavenger hunts using their GPS devices. The “Cache Ba$h,” as it’s called, typically brings in between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees, said Farrell. And they, like the golf fans, need a place to stay at night.

“That single event, which is just really three days,” he said, “brings in a half million dollars of tourism dollars into the community between hotel accommodations, restaurants, shopping, gas. You name it.”

Besides the hotel room tax — a tax whose revenue goes toward funding tourism marketing for West Bend — Rich Kasten said there are few other ways to accurately measure tourism guests’ economic impacts on the area. Still, the West Bend Common Council member — he also sits on the city’s Tourism Commission — said even anecdotal evidence points to a strong local tourism economy here.

“I think we are truly seeing it,” he said. “I think we’re doing pretty well in our tourism.”