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Tourism in DeKalb County up in 2012, looking better for 2013

Visitors explore the Northern Illinois Farm Show on Jan. 10 at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. DeKalb County saw a 3.49 percent increase in tourism from last year.
Visitors explore the Northern Illinois Farm Show on Jan. 10 at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. DeKalb County saw a 3.49 percent increase in tourism from last year.

DeKalb – Last year was one of the worst that Vicky Torres has seen.

In 13 years as the general manager and director of sales at the Best Western Inn & Suites in DeKalb, she never experienced a dropoff in customers like she did in 2012, and she can tell you why in just a few words.

“Well, it was the economy,” she says.

Torres is right, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

That’s because DeKalb County actually saw a 3.49 percent increase in tourism spending last year, something experts attribute to more travelers spending less and staying closer to home. The newly certified DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau is working to help hoteliers make up the difference.

“People are looking to travel a little bit closer to home,” said Bonnie Heimbach, the executive director of the Chicago & Beyond regional tourism office.

Heimbach said that although Illinois welcomed a record 99 million visitors in 2012, many tourist dollars come from fellow Illinoisans, some of whom don’t need lodging.

“Even if they’re not spending as much or staying as long, there are just more people visiting the area,” she said.

And with its array of indoor and outdoor venues, regional events and hotel options that are on the rise, the DeKalb area is seeing its share of tourism revenues increase.

Visitors to the county spent $81.46 million on transportation, food service, lodging, retail, recreation and entertainment in 2012, an increase over the $78.62 million spent in 2011, according to Chicago & Beyond.

That 3.49 percent rise ranks sixth among nine neighboring counties. Lee County increased the most, by 4.75 percent, to $29.9 million, and the Chicago region as a whole saw a 4.26 percent uptick.

The DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau takes some of the credit. Originally developed by Executive Director Debbie Armstrong as an arm of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the bureau received state certification in July 2011, and works with hotels to offer blocks of rooms at rates that groups can afford.

As a certified bureau – one of 40 in Illinois – the visitors bureau can apply for fund-matching grants through the state and receives a portion of local hotel tax revenues. The bureau received $55,928 in grants in its first year and $71,576 for the next fiscal year, which ended this summer, from the state.

To receive those funds, the DeKalb County bureau had to raise money on its own from private groups. The state government matches local fundraising with a grant that goes toward marketing and promotional materials.

“We have to raise money locally,” Armstrong said. “... We have municipal partners and financial backers that have invested in tourism here.”

The bureau works with about 15 visiting groups a year to find affordable lodging, available meeting or venue space and dining options.

“Basically, we’re the first point of contact for any group that wants to come and visit, either for business or fun,” Armstrong said. “They put us to work for them for free.”

But even with smaller groups, which may be in town for a Northern Illinois football game, Corn Fest or just to wander Lincoln Highway, there are clear benefits for the local economy.

“The economy as a whole has seen some progression [over the past few years],” DeKalb Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matt Duffy said. “But obviously tourism dollars are a huge part of that, because any time you bring dollars from outside the community into the community ... that’s a huge benefit.”

According to data from Chicago & Beyond, tourism supported 510 jobs and brought $1.28 million in local tax receipts to DeKalb County in 2012. That tax money, which includes revenues from hotel and transportation taxes as well as dining and retail taxes that come from travelers, return directly to local governments to support infrastructure and public programs.

Heimbach says the region is on track to do even better in 2013. Her office has already experienced record calls since January.

“From what we’re seeing, it looks very strong,” she said.

Torres also has seen the tides turning for her hotel.

“This year I’ve seen signs of improvement,” she said. “I’m up probably 7 [percent] or 8 percent from last year.”

Tourism spending in DeKalb County vs. others ranked by year-to-year change

2011 Spending (millions)2012 Spending (millions)% Change

Cook 19,300 20,340 5.11

Lee 28.48 29.9 4.75

Winnebago 311.78 3 26.31 4.45

Kendall 42.83 44.47 3.69

McHenry 205.26 212.89 3.58

Ogle 62.99 65.3 3.54

DeKalb 78.62 81.46 3.49

Kane 420.2 434.02 3.18

Boone 17.5 17.96 2.56

LaSalle 164.52 168.55 2.39

State of Illinois3176030930-2.68

Chicago Region 5,400 5,640 4.26

Source: Chicago & Beyond Regional Tourism Office

Local DeKalb County Tourism Tax Receipts

Tax Receipts (millions)

2012 1.28

2011 1.22

2010 1.15

2009 1.08

2008 1.21

2007 1.11

2006 1.03

2005 0.97

2004 0.91

2003 0.86

Source: Chicago & Beyond Regional Tourism Office

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