Illinois tourism had record year in 2014; Peoria region saw growth

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It was another record-setting year for tourism in Illinois and new initiatives in place this year has state and local tourism officials excited about 2015 and beyond.

The message brought to Peoria on Wednesday by the Illinois Office of Tourism was nothing but positive, showing that tourism is the one bright spot in the state best with financial problems and where the government is operating without a budget.

“The ongoing increase in visitors to Illinois demonstrates that both leisure and business travelers are considering Illinois a premier travel destination, providing a direct economic benefit for communities across the state,” said Cory Jobe, director of the Illinois Office of Tourism, during a news conference at the Caterpillar Visitors Center.

“These number are a true testament that the  industry’s efforts to support and promote to Illinois are paying off, year after year,” he said.

Peoria was again one of the stops on the Office of Tourism’s annual Road Show, a tour of 12 cities in the state over four days to give local officials and communities the latest figures on number of visitors to the state, revenue generated, jobs supports and new initiatives.

The event was held at Caterpillar’s visitor center because it is one of this region’s top tourism attractions despite being open just under three years. Since it opened in October 2012, the center has had more than 230,000 visitors, with people from each of the 50 states and more than 50 countries, said Kathryn Spitznagle, manager of the Caterpillar Visitors Center.

In 2014, Illinois hosted more than 109 million visitors, an increase of 3.5 percent from 2013, with more than $36.3 billion in travel expenditures, the state tourism office said.

In the Peoria region, visitors spend $665.5 million in 2014, an increase of 4.75 percent. This money supported 5,010 jobs and generated $15.24 million in local tax revenues.

Local politicians spoke of the importance of tourism to the region’s economy and said they are excited about the future because of new developments now on line or coming. “The impact of tourism in our state is significant and a very important part of our economy. And Peoria County, ranked 10th in the state in tourism, gets a good share of it,” said State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.

Koehler said he enjoys is when he and his wife host out of town visitors and can take them around the region to see various things. “It gives us the opportunity to re-see ourselves and everything the area has to offer. I am very excited about the future we have here,” he said.

Peoria City Councilman Ryan Spain said Peoria in a community that has lifted itself up to invest in tourism and is now seeing that pay off. He cited the decision by voters several years ago, in the midst of a recession, to increase sales taxes in Peoria County to help pay for the new Riverfront Museum. He cited other investments that have paved the way for new dollars.

“Tourism really plays in Peoria. It is important to every community in our region. It is critical we continue to invest in it,” Spain said.

Don Welch, president of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau who served as host of the event, told of new programs his agency has launched to grab larger shares of tourism dollars. Part of that is trying to grow the convention business here. One program he mentioned is called “Bring Your Meeting Home,” a push to local business people who go out of the area to attend conventions to help get those conventions to Peoria.

Welch also talked about new developments that will bring in much more in tourism dollars, in particular the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex that will soon host major softball, baseball and soccer tournaments on its fields and under a 125,000 square foot dome. He said IGNITE Peoria, the one-day event at the Peoria Civic Center that showcases different art groups from the region that is back next week for its second year, will continue to bring people from outside the region.

The success of IGNITE, he added, has the Civic Center looking into other local events it can showcase throughout the year.

In the past year, Welch said, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has booked 207 events that will generate 68,195 room nights and have an estimated economic impact of $24.3 million in the future. One of those is the Hearts At Home National Conference in 2016 and the Illinois Elementary School Association Cheer Finals starting in 2017. He also noted that Peoria will host the Illinois High School Association boys basketball state finals – the original March Madness – at least through 2020.

“There is a lot of stuff out there. We’re going to fish in some pretty big ponds,” Welch said.

Jobe went through several of the initiatives at the state level and lavished praise upon agencies like the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, calling them “our front line.”

“I’m proud of our economic impact numbers,” Jobe said.

Some programs include taking advantage of the love people have for Abraham Lincoln. There is also Project Time Off, which tries to convince Illinoisans to use the vacation time they have accumulated instead of leaving it on the table. Another is called Illinois Made and it will include short films aimed at introducing tourists to artisans and businesses and the things they make themselves.

The brand “Enjoy Illinois,” which is also the name of the Office of Tourism website (www.enjoyillinois.com) is being adapted by local agencies, including the Peoria Area Conventional and Visitors Bureau, which uses the “enjoy Peoria” brand. Jobe said it denotes a lifestyle brand for tourists and residents, alike.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).