Revenue remains down across the board for members of Madison’s tourism industry, but the month of July has shown some bright spots and there is potential for improvement in the near future.

Innkeepers and store owners at a Jefferson County Board of Tourism meeting last week talked at length about how they were staying afloat during the fifth month of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and possible ways to adapt going forward. Though the innkeeper’s tax is only bringing in about 50% of its usual revenue, July has been a busy month for out-of-town visitors, presenting untapped potential for independent hotels, businesses and local governments in navigating the crisis.

A lot of that potential might come from increasing the amount of mid-week visitors, offering steep discounts and cashing in on the growing ATV/outdoor recreation market locally with events inside and outside the county, she and other members said.

Board member Kathy Petkovic, who owns Riverboat Inn and Suites, saw a dramatic uptick in stays after Memorial Day Weekend when she started offering a two-day special for the price of a one-night stay. Since then, she and her staff have been busy keeping up with an influx of guests from Cincinnati, central Indiana and other areas within a couple hours’ drive of Madison.

“They just can’t stand to be in their house one more day,” Petkovic said of the tourists.

While revenue has remain mostly identical to the early days of the pandemic, Petkovic said the deal has allowed her to keep employees working while helping circulate money through town. Businesses would be wise to take advantage of discounts to generate the same effect, she said.

Visit Madison Executive Director Tawana Thomas said another local hotel was completely booked last weekend and that Clifty Falls State Park has been busy with lodging and camping accommodations so there are those who are capitalizing. She thinks that’s an “encouraging sign” for all tourism partners with schools starting up again and some families opting for online learning.

“Families, in the reports that we’re seeing, are anticipating those one-hour drive little weekend getaways, two night stays for camping and such,” Thomas said.

Thomas was optimistic about the state of independent hotels and said weeknight stays were “way up” from last year. She and others with Visit Madison also hope to rebound in 2021 once the renovated Eagle Cotton Mill is finished and reopens as a boutique Fairfield Inn & Suites Marriott next year.

However, Visit Madison has seen its share of shortfalls during COVID-19. Last year the organization took in about $500,000, but figures dropped by about 75% at the start of the pandemic and are now around 50%, board member Tami Hagemier said.

To make up for lost revenue, Hagemier urged business owners to exercise their “fiduciary responsibility” to the health of Madison and Main Street by approaching city council, voicing their need for help and staying on their toes about ways to keep visitors coming. To truly make a difference in recouping that money, innkeepers would also have to keep increasing stays during the middle of the week since weekends are already booked and not open to generate the revenue needed to recover, she said.

Increasing engagement on social media and Visit Madison’s website could also be crucial going forward, she said.

“To make up for that loss that we’ve had, we can’t build hotel rooms, we have to try to impact our midweek stays,” Hagemier noted. “… There’s a real risk here if things don’t turn around.”

To help make up for money lost, Visit Madison has applied for and been accepted to the Group Tour Media Resilience Program, which matches group tour businesses up to $10,000 to help cover marketing costs during the pandemic. The Jefferson County Board of Tourism is also applying for Indiana’s Small Business Restart Fund grants made possible through CARES Act funding, Visit Madison Marketing and Advertising Director Sarah Prasil said.

Thomas also cited a recent Zoom meeting with Jim Epperson, executive director of SoIN Tourism, in which they discussed a push to persuade lawmakers to allow 501 C (6) agencies like Visit Madison to qualify for government assistance. Similar to nonprofits, 501 C (3) agencies can qualify for extra funding, but chambers of commerces, business leagues and real estate boards are otherwise on their own, she said.

Doing so would help Visit Madison reach its normal budget of $450,000, Thomas said. The organization requested about $250,000 from the county recently to help support events and the marketing initiatives needed to get through this time.

Another initiative currently in the works is partnering Madison TV15 with local innkeepers to create promotional content and generate a bigger overall boost for commerce in Jefferson County, she added.

“I think with our marketing efforts, absolutely, we would feel much more secure staff-wise, marketing-wise, advertising if we got as close to that $400,000 as we could get. But it’s the nature of what everybody is going through at this point,” she said.

With that said, tourism officials will also need to come up with more ways to get people to come here if they want to stay ahead of their losses.

Board member Curtis Chatham, who serves on Madison City Council and the county’s newly formed Sports and Recreation Council brought several ideas to the table for events and highlighted the potential for outdoor recreation tourism in the area.

The sports and recreation council includes representatives from Hanover College, Madison Consolidated Schools, Prince of Peace Catholic Schools, the City of Madison Parks and Recreation Department as well as other groups with a big footprint on local recreation.

While the board is looking into existing opportunities like camping and fishing, ideas Monday ranged from a poker run for UTVs to drag racing at the Madison Municipal airport and a possible dirt track for ATV and motorcycles similar to the Dirty Turtle in Trimble County.

The added bonus is that most of those events, like UTV races and gatherings for out-of-town Jeep groups could be staged with little setup costs.

“We already have the infrastructure,” board president and county commissioner Robert Little said.

Petkovic said the Dirty Turtle might be a great place to start, with Madison hosting an event there to promote its initiatives and drive up hotel stays for a couple nights. Chatham agreed, and said Salem did a similar event with drag racing and booked more than 200 hotel rooms for a two-night event. Citing the new draft comprehensive plan for the county, Hagemier said the county could eventually have its own dirt track to bring more of those events here.

“The county wanted to see something like an ATV/mud track here because we of course have SuperATV. So working with (SuperATV owner) Harold (Hunt) and his employees to create something here locally, and I think that may actually with the Sports and Rec Council move forward a little bit faster, and I know Curtis is working super hard on some of those things.”

In other business

• Thomas said the Indiana Office of Tourism Development has cut its staff at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site down to one site manager and tours are now being conducted at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. instead of every hour. Sanitation is taking place after every tour.

• Thomas also said Visit Madison has begun working on a request for approval (RFP) to host the 2024 Indiana Landmarks Preserving Historic Places Conference.