Tourism Impacts Q&A with Woodland Resort Owner, Kyle Blanchfield
None of North Dakota's industries or businesses have been immune to the pandemic's reach. Included among the impact is tourism, which is one of the largest industries in the state. In 2018, the industry generated $300 million in state and local taxes and is the fifth largest employer in the state as it supports 2,800 businesses and 42,000 jobs.GNDC: What do you think will be trends or the outlook on the ND Tourism industry this summer?
During the early onset of the pandemic's infiltration, North Dakota Dept of Commerce Tourism and Marketing Director, Sara Otte Coleman stated the tourism industry "would not go dark." As recovery remains at the forefront, these businesses are no different and in fact are further pointing out that North Dakota is ideal for wide-open spaces, exploring the great outdoors, and enjoying the scenic route. North Dakota was promoting social distancing before the phrase was even conceived.
To get an insider's perspective - we visited with Kyle Blanchfield, owner of Woodland Resort in Devils Lake. Aside from asking him about COVID-19 impacts (see video for more), we discussed industry trends, outsider involvement, industry advice, reopening procedures and resources, and even got an informal fishing report.
Blanchfield: I think at the end of the day we will be down some, but not as much as we thought. I believe we will see a rebound. There is a point where people are saying enough is enough; they want to get out and enjoy the outdoors, be it hunting, fishing or whatever outdoor activities that they like. People like to travel, but there is some fear of that now. I think as we progress through the summer people are going to try it. In outdoor recreation we are lucky. You can socially distance yourself easily in a boat. You can stay in our cabins and go fishing or stay at state parks in your camper and do it safely and responsibly with friends and family. We are following all the guidelines. In a way, our business is well suited for this.
What should North Dakotans and decision-makers be aware of for the tourism industry this summer in light of economic changes and COVID-19?
They should be aware that tourism is not going to bring as much revenue to the state budget as we have in the past. The reality is we will all be down some. We [individuals in our industry] are doing everything we can to turn around our sector of the economy quickly and safely. I think our recovery will be one of the fastest in the state. We are going to get beat up a little bit and be down some, but I believe we will recover quickly. We are one of the top three industries in the state and I think we will stay there. We are at full employment and expect to stay busy this summer. We are vulnerable, though. Some of the surrounding states have been a little more aggressive with marketing. The reality is we are a little tight in that area and things may get tighter. Unfortunately, state tourism dollars are some of the first to be cut, and that is probably a bad idea because I think we have a lot of opportunities in our state for tourism. We need to stay nose to the grindstone on that investment in marketing tourism here.
What should the tourism industry be doing to help themselves and ensure vibrancy?
First of all, we all have to be responsible in the way that we conduct business. We need to operate a clean facility. That means having all the proper protocols in place to make people feel comfortable and safe. That way they are not concerned about catching COVID-19 at a fishing resort in Devils Lake, North Dakota. We have done a good job with cleaning. Of course, the guests have to take some personal responsibility too. We also need to tell our story. Fishing is a safe activity and sometimes we forget to toot our own horn. Fishing was designed for people to get away by themselves or in small groups. We also need to promote the health benefits of getting outside and breathing fresh North Dakota air. Spending time outdoors is fun and safe. We need to continue to share that story.
You’ve been utilizing GNDC resources long before COVID-19 and were a previous board member – can you share what you tell people when they ask about the state chamber?
The state chamber of commerce is our state-level ally, our advocate. A small business like ours cannot always be in Bismarck protecting business. I think GNDC does a great job of being the voice for business in North Dakota. More recently, making resources available from the beginning of the COVID outbreak was extremely beneficial for us. I powered through every call and webinar that you made available. They were all really good and full of reliable information from trusted sources. They got everybody up to snuff and made you feel better at the end of the day because part of the fear is not knowing. GNDC did an awesome job of getting that information out to the business community and offering all kinds of additional resources that we could use and dig into deeper if we wanted to learn more. Beyond being an advocate for business, GNDC served as an information provider. That was especially important at this time when things got complicated for businesses, who were looking for reliable information to get on the right track to reopening. Anyone who was second-guessing their investment in the chamber when this hit should know now that membership in the GNDC is a good investment in their business. Rather than chasing your tail searching for information, all you had to do was be connected to GNDC, giving you access to great information.
The Governor has promoted fishing as a safe way to social distance – has this acknowledgment influenced traffic at the resort or on the lake?
Initially, we were very concerned because there was an outcry from residents to stop non-residents from coming to North Dakota. We do a lot of business with North Dakota residents, but the majority of our business is with non-residents. So that scared us. We are very lucky to have a Governor who bases his decisions on data points and facts, not emotions. I am so thankful for that because he allowed non-resident anglers to still venture to North Dakota. There are people who want to know why it is that when Grandma comes back from Arizona she should quarantine, but some guy coming from Minneapolis to go fishing can just come. That is a valid question, but our Governor understood that that was not really a serious threat and we could do it safely. We did not see any big upswings in cases or hotspots because we took the appropriate precautions and are following the guidelines. Last week, we had a lot of blue license plates here and some other colored plates too. We are confident that we can continue to provide a safe environment here for all anglers. That was a big move by the Governor, and we appreciate it.
What was the biggest catch you heard of this past weekend?
Fishing has been pretty good. There has been an incredible white bass bite. There have been plenty white bass caught lately, four-pound and more. I think the biggest walleye that we weighed in was just shy of 10 pounds. We are also seeing a lot of catch and release photos of big walleyes. People are catching fish. This is a good time of the year to catch trophy fish. I think fishing will be good from here on out. We are expecting this to be a great summer. Overall, fish numbers are great, and we are blessed with a great fishery here. Our friends over at Lake Sakakawea are doing the same thing. Fishing in general in North Dakota is looking great this year.