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Call to Arms

Economic crises forces area tourism
businesses to take action

Creativity, versatility cited as keys to survival

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

May 2009 Indiana Edition Cover

May 2009 Indiana
Edition Cover

(May 2009) – Walk past the Madison Fudge Factory any day of the week, and not only will you smell the wafting aroma of baking goodies, but you will probably see the shop full of women talking, laughing and having fun as they bake treats to take home.
The Madison Fudge Factory, 630 W. Main St., is not taking the current economic crisis lightly. Instead, the homemade fudge maker has teamed with the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau staff to offer out-of-town tour groups a unique experience at its shop.
When the world economy tanked in 2008, Madison’s businesses and industries also took their share of punches. Some, however, are fighting back with aggressive strategies and creative ideas to attract customers. Many say the strategy is working.
Economic factors

Linda Lytle

"We do not expect doom and gloom, but we do understand we will be hit."

– Linda Lytle, tourism director

The economic news is grim. The financial markets are roiling; the real estate market has been rocked and the U.S. automotive industry’s future has never seemed bleaker. The United States is preparing Chrysler Corp. for bankruptcy, while General Motors has announced it will shut down 13 U.S. plants for up to 11 weeks.
Over the past 12 months, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of unemployed people nationally has grown by 5.3 million to 13.2 million. The national unemployment rate has risen 3.4 percent to 8.5 percent. Since December 2007, 5.1 million jobs were lost; two-thirds of those, or 3.3 million, were lost in just the past five months.
In Indiana, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was at 10.0 percent at the end of March. That ranks higher than the national rate, according to the state’s www.hoosierdata.in.gov website.
In Jefferson County, Ind., things are even worse: In March, the unemployment rate stood at 11 percent. A year ago in March, the unemployment rate was 5.8 percent.
Because tourism in Indiana generates more than $725 million in sales tax revenue for the state each year, and the tourism industry employs more than 250,000 Hoosiers, tourism officials are worried about the effects of the economic crisis on tourism. Tourism is one of the largest contributors to the area’s economy.

Steve Pullias

Photo by Don Ward

Musician Steve Pullias plays guitar
with a friend outside his Madison
Music Center during a recent Art Jam.

“Of course, we are concerned about the downturn on Madison’s tourism,” said Steve Thomas, president of the Jefferson County Board of Tourism and himself the owner of a business that caters to tourists – Thomas Family Winery. “We feel, however, that Madison is going to fare better than many places because of the type of tourists we get.”
Madison has become a “day-trip destination” for visitors from three nearby metropolitan areas – Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati. The city’s nationally known historic sites, Clifty Falls State Park and unique downtown shopping combine to offer visitors with a popular spot for short getaways.
“We don’t see the massive high volume numbers that other places may see,” said Thomas. “Instead, we have the high-quality tourists who come through here. We believe they will continue to do so.”
At the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, officials are working on initiatives to help supplement any loss of revenue from a possible drop in innskeepers tax revenue. Lodgings in the county pay a monthly innskeepers’ tax, which supports tourism. The money is collected at the state and then sent to the county via the Jefferson County Board of Tourism.

Crystal Fulton

"Madison’s possibilities are endless, and we are going to take advantage of that."

– Crystal Fulton, Madison Mercantile

Many hotels in the area report a plunge in occupation in the past few months, according to reports at the monthly CVB and JCBT meetings. At the Holiday Inn Express, 300 Franks Dr., on Madison’s hilltop, General Manager Renie Stephens said weekdays for her hotel, which attract corporate clients, are down just slightly, but weekends have declined “sharply.”
“Every day we brainstorm to work on new ideas,” she said. “We have plans in the works, and I am sure other hotels are working just as hard, too.”
The Holiday Inn Express and other hotels have worked with the CVB to devise special packages, many of which include incentives and gifts from local businesses, to offer to groups and other visitors.
CVB Executive Director Linda Lytle said the money for the 2009 budget may already be in the bank, but her office was going to be cautious and look at ways to supplement the budget for the future. “There is anxiety, but we are being optimistic,” she said. “We do not expect gloom and doom, but we do understand we will be hit.”
She said that in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many tourism departments across the country were severely affected. “We expected dramatic things to happen in 2002,” she said. “In lots of places, they did happen. It didn’t happen here, though.”
Lytle said Madison’s reputation as a “drive-to” destination may have helped insulate it from the impacts from terrorism. She believes it will work for the community again over the next few years, which are expected to be “rough.”
In fact, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business has forecasted that while the recession should end by second half of this year, “the recession will hit Indiana hard over the next year and a half.”

Business initiatives

Already, the CVB has launched new events that could become annual attractions and is creating opportunities that will attract group tours to the area. Group tours play a major role in Madison’s tourism industry.
The March 22 “Taste of Madison” daylong event at Clifty Falls State Park was created as a way to showcase the county’s food and beverage businesses. “The event went well, and we were pleased with the turnout,” said Lytle. “All of the feedback we got was positive, so we are going to go ahead and add it to next year’s calendar.”
The CVB staff member Marci Jones said her office has recently been “looking at some new things for groups.” In April, the area’s bed and breakfasts held an open house to allow the public to view what is available for lodging in the county. Many area residents took advantage of that opportunity and were surprised at the quality of lodging they found but never realized existed in this area, said Lytle.
For two weekends in May, groups of tour operators have been invited to come to Madison to see what kinds of opportunities are available for their group tours. “We have worked with lots of area businesses and have come up with exciting and fun things for the tour operators to see while they are here,” said Jones.
The Madison Fudge Factory is one of the businesses who jumped at the chance to attract new customers.

Lillie Wingham

Photo by Don Ward

Madison artist Lillie Wingham
paints on Main Street during a
recent Friday Night Art Jam.

Betty Todd, who manages the Madison Fudge Factory for owner Jim Grant, said that when business dropped significantly, they realized they needed to “work smarter, not harder.”
She said they created the “Girls’ Getaway” day for groups, and expanded many of their lines and services. “You have to change with the times, and be up-to-date if you want to survive this,” she said.
In the new program, small groups of guests are invited to spend a few hours making fudge, pulling taffy or even baking dessert breads. “Whatever they want to do, we will provide it,” said Todd. “Our business is in the business of pampering people. There’s nothing like a piece of fresh-baked fudge to make you feel better.”
“Bend, yield and adapt,” is Crystal Fulton’s motto for surviving tough economic times. Crystal and John Fulton own Madison Mercantile, 220 W. Main St. and the Mad Merc Café, located inside the store. The company offers an extensive line of home interior products, including gourmet kitchen wares, handcrafted furniture and interior decorating services.
“We’re optimists; we expand in different areas when the opportunity becomes available,” said Fulton. “Madison’s possibilities are endless, and we are going to take advantage of that.”
She said her company has noticed the economic downturn, but she has learned to not listen to the dire predictions and pessimistic attitudes projected by the news industry. “Our forefathers came to this country with absolutely nothing,” she said. “They didn’t let anything get them down.”
Her company has also joined with the CVB to offer cooking classes to group tours. When the tour operators arrive, they will visit Madison Mercantile and be treated to cooking classes, a lunch and multi-phased demonstrations. “Whatever the group wants to cook, we will put together,” she said.
Fulton’s cooking classes, which have become extremely popular, arose out of slack time in the Merc Café. “We had this wonderful restaurant just sitting empty at times,” said Fulton. “I realized we could fill it up with guests who are interested in cooking, so I opened up my cooking classes.”

Hot spots

Other tourism-based businesses are also strategizing and brainstorming for new ways to attract customers.

Bob Ems

"Many stores report sales are normal, while others aren’t even close to last year’s levels."

– Bob Ems, Madison Main Street Progam

At Historic Madison Inc. Executive Director John Staicer said it was too early to tell what kind of season 2009 would shape up to be. The four touring museum sites the organization owns and operates opened in mid-April and stay open through October.
“We are trying to do things differently to keep visitors coming to our sites,” he said. “We have a few things in the pipeline that we are working on.” This season, HMI will open the newly restored Francis Costigan House and the Sullivan House, which was damaged during the September 2008 windstorm caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ike. “We’ve changed the third-floor exhibit at the Sullivan House to make it interesting for those who have already seen the home.”
Meanwhile, Dick Davis, the Department of Natural Resources naturalist at Clifty Falls State Park, said annually the park attracts more than 450,000 visitors. “It is too early to tell what effect the economic collapse will have on our tourist season,” he said. “Traditionally, however, when the nation is under tremendous stress, people flock to parks. My sense of things after 30 years of experience is that tradition will continue.”
He said that at this point, his benchmark programs have seen nothing dramatic in terms of attendance, but the park campground has experienced a tremendous increase over the past few seasons.
Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, a DNR-owned property in Madison, is the county’s top tourist attraction. Site Manager Gerry Reilly said that visitation dropped 11 percent in 2008 from 2007, but already in 2009, visitation is up slightly.
“Places like Madison may do well because people are looking for comfort and not traveling as far,” he said. He has added new programs at the historic home and believes that the Madison Bicentennial Celebration in mid-June will attract a much bigger draw for the annual “Lanier Days.”
At the annual event, scheduled for June 13-14 this year, visitors can experience period re-enactments, listen to period stories, participate in children’s activities, see artisans demonstrating 19th century trades, hear period music and view a display of Civil War weaponry.

Lanier Mansion

Photo by Don Ward

The Lanier Mansion State Historic
Site ranks among Madison’s
most visited attractions.

The Madison Bicentennial Celebration has scheduled its 200-hour birthday party during the week of June 6-14. Potentially, thousands of guests could arrive in the city.
Madison Main Street Program is an organization that teams with downtown business owners and residents to provide support and assistance for preserving and renovating historic buildings and also helps to enhance retail sales through guidance in design and marketing.
This year, the program was responsible for organizing the 200-hour party of the Madison Bicentennial Celebration. Bob Ems, the organization’s board president, said he believes the Madison Bicentennial Celebration will be a “major shot in the arm for retailers.”
“The effects of the economic crisis have been very spotty,” he said. “Many stores report sales are close to normal, while others aren’t even close to last year’s levels. But there is no pattern to who is affected.”
He said all retailers have noticed that shoppers have “tightened their discretionary spending” and are looking for bargains. In an effort to combat that trend, retailers have become far more aggressive in pursuing new ideas and strategies.
“It’s called ‘gorilla marketing,’ and if retailers can keep that mentality when business picks up, they should begin to generate excess revenue,” he said. “That could be the silver lining in all of this.”

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