Bringing visitors back

L’ANSE – Visitors to Baraga County over the past few years have been mostly happy with their stays, but there are also plenty of opportunities to improve their experience, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Baraga County Chamber of Commerce and Baraga County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

On average, the 244 visitors that responded to the emailed survey rated their satisfaction at 3.54 on a five-point scale, with a 3 representing “met expectations” and a 4 representing “exceeded expectations.” The county scored 4.41 in visitors’ willingness to revisit, with a 4 meaning they would be “likely to return” and a 5 “very likely to return.” Averaged out, these scores resulted in a 3.97 for Baraga’s Tourism Health Index, just shy of the 4 survey designers labeled “excellent.”

Those numbers are good, said Dr. Jun Min, who led the study, but they could be better, and satisfaction actually went down a bit from 2013 visitors to those who visited this year.

“What we want is for them to say ‘yes, it really exceeded my expectations,'” he said. “We want that to go up.”

Min is an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan Technological University. He and his students conducted the study with the assistance of Dr. Grant Fenner, a Baraga resident and retired professor of management at Arkansas State University.

It was conducted by emailing about 5,000 previous county visitors, most of whom have visited since 2012. Respondents were entered in drawings for prizes such as free stays at county hotels.

It cost the chamber about $2,500, according to Chamber of Commerce Vice President Debbie Stouffer.

The results were presented at a packed meeting of Baraga stakeholders at the L’Anse Township Hall, with Fenner and Min presenting the findings.

Mark Massicotte, president of the Baraga County Chamber of Commerce, called the study a “milestone.”

“The collaboration from the community has been astronomical,” he said. “Taking our strengths and weaknesses from this, and trying to prioritize them, is a start for tomorrow.”

The most glaring areas for improvement came in visitors’ feelings of safety and security, which scored a 3.56 out of 5, and in friendliness and helpfulness of local citizens, which was also around 3.5. On these scales, a 4 correlated to a B letter grade.

For Candy Kanniainen, chair of the Chamber’s Communication Committee and owner of the Hardwood Steakhouse in Covington, the perceived lack of friendliness was especially disturbing.

“There’s money to be made in Baraga County, but not if we tell them to leave,” she said. However, she said, that’s also an area that can be improved with a bit of training and commitment. “It doesn’t cost money,” she said.

Respondents were also largely unaware of many Baraga activities and attractions, such as music and museums, as well as special events like the Powwow, Lumber Jack Days and the Lake Trout Festival.

Massicotte said improving advertising for events and attractions should be a priority, but that increasing collaboration within the community should make the challenge manageable.

The survey also showed that each visitor spent an average of $599 during their stay – $731 for a winter stay and $501 for a summer stay. The majority of that money was spent on lodging, with money spent at the casino a coming in second.

Why visitors came was also a surprise. For 57 percent of visitors, Baraga County was someplace to pass through – part of a longer trip or a day trip while visiting somewhere else.

Forty-one percent of visitors came because of an emotional attachment to the area, while for 36.5 percent of visitors, access to outdoor and nature activities was a draw.

The key to achieving the county’s tourism goals, according to Fenner, is for the community to unite behind them and work together.

“We all need to be part of the same family,” he said, “because we all share mostly the same interests.”