Talking Tourism: A New Year by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: January 15, 2021

Talking Tourism – A New Year

By Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County MN

It takes a distinctive person to call northeastern Minnesota home. It also takes business resiliency that is understood but sometimes not recognized.  That is, until faced with a pandemic that set all of us reeling. In March we closed. And I mean truly closed. This decision was difficult and scrutinized by leaders from every sector (healthcare, government, tourism). After heartfelt and respectful conversations, it was agreed that this would be best for our community. When your economy is vastly dependent on tourism, closing takes on a whole new meaning.

As a person who leads an organization that promotes our area, this has always seemed like a no brainer. Why wouldn’t a person want to visit here?  For those of us that are fortunate enough to call this area home, we understand the allure; the inland lakes, THE LAKE, the BWCAW, the highest falls, the miles and miles of hiking trails; the list is extensive.  Early during the closure and as I participated in industry calls from across the nation, I learned that the tourism persona would change. Our visitors would likely travel from a home base radius 250-300 miles from their homes, they would load the family in the car and drive and they would check items off their personal travel and “back yard” bucket lists . That is precisely what happened.

The shift began. Working together, we established protocols that would keep our community safe while allowing our businesses to operate.  In May, as lodging worked diligently to implement new COVID protocols, it became a question of not how to open but rather when. We are a vocal community and there was a certain amount of fear regarding public scrutiny and opening your business during a pandemic.

However, we figured it out. We opened. And the people came. And COVID remained at bay. Over and over again, when engaged in tourism industry calls, I heard how many areas in Minnesota, surrounding states and across the nation struggled mightily with decreased visitors. Areas that were reliant on conferences and major sporting events were ghost towns and were operating at 20-30% over last year. Cook County is fortunate. We have the vast outdoors and many lodging opportunities that are either remote or spacious. We continued to be vocal about our expectations for behavior. A united community voice was heard stating we expect social distancing – One Moose Apart. We expect masks on in our stores. There was a spirit of cooperation that I believe will continue long after we emerge from the restrictions imposed by COVID.

While many businesses continue to struggle and have questions about future workforce, there is a glimmer of hope. The occupancy rates of our lodging facilities outpaced most of Minnesota. Bringing your own linens and not “turning stayovers” helped set a new and accepted hospitality protocol. The determination displayed during the past 10 months will continue. Our people are the heart of hospitality day in and day out and we thank you.

Although festivals and events may look different in 2021, they will return and we will recover. We will continue to welcome tens of thousands of visitors to our area. The determination and strength displayed by our business owners will prevail. The pandemic helped us truly understand the ups and downs and ins and outs of a tourism based economy, and I believe we all have a deeper appreciation one another.

I look forward to greeting you all again in the near future. Happy New Year.