Reflecting on past successes, Visit McHenry County envisions a bold future
Back in the days before the McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau was formed, now doing business as Visit McHenry County, local economic development experts knew that hundreds of thousands of potential grants and dollars for visitors were untapped.
State grants to promote local tourism were not available to regions without a state-certified local destination marketing organization. And potential tourists who weren’t aware of the unique charms of places like Woodstock Square or the family keepsakes to be created at Richardson Adventure Farm or Von Bergen’s or Royal Oak Farm Orchard, well, they wouldn’t come.
It was time to organize. Thus, at the end of summer 2005, the Congress and Visitors Bureau was born. The organization has come a long way, said Jaki Berggren, executive director of Visit McHenry County, during a recent 16th anniversary celebration.
“The first few years were spent determining our niche,” said Berggren, who started as sales director for the organization under Cort Carlson, then managing director in 2009.
“What we found is that agrotourism has been and probably always will be one of our main draws,” she continued. “But what is also very appealing to people who travel here and those of the big cities is the feeling of Americana, the charm of those pretty little towns dotted around the countryside, the excellent restaurants that range from farm to farm. the table, unique amenities like the wakeboard park at Crystal Lake and special events like Blues, Brews & BBQ, Autumn Drive, Pridefest, Death of the Fox River and Groundhog Days.
“We will never have the enormous amounts of attractions that a city like Chicago has, but we have some incredibly attractive things to do and see here.”
During a recent Sweet 16 celebration for Visit McHenry County at Scorched Earth Brewing Co. in Algonquin, Berggren chatted with Carlson as well as Kristine Austin, now Director of Sales and Marketing, and others on how far the organization.
In the beginning, it was all about membership, said Carlson and Jean Schober, vice president of McHenry County Economic Development Corp., which essentially spawned VMC in the 2000s. competition for this almighty visitor dollar that joining forces would prove beneficial to all was initially a challenge.
“After we got around it a bit, it all started to make more sense for the leaders of each city to recognize that, ‘Yes, what we have is cool, but when you add it all up it’s really, really cool, “said Carlson, who still lives in McHenry County but is now executive director of Enjoy Aurora.” I certainly think that due to the shift in mindset and efforts to promote the county as a whole, McHenry County now has a much better profile as a viable destination.
“If you want to visit an apple orchard in the fall, for example, you have to go to McHenry County. If you are looking for the largest corn maze in the world, you have to go to McHenry County,” he said. “And while the visitors are here, they’re buying gas, they’re having lunch or dinner, maybe shopping. The dollars add up.”
Carlson added that if the lockdowns caused by the 2020 pandemic proved anything, it was the effect of tourism dollars. “It became painfully obvious how important it was to have people from outside here spending money,” he said. “Visitors typically don’t use taxpayer-funded services like police and firefighters, but they leave those dollars here, which offsets the cost to residents. It has a huge impact on the economy.
Schober said that when the MCCVB was certified in 2007, it became the 41st Illinois Convention and Visitors Bureau. The dollars that the organization continues to attract to the region are critical, she said.
“Prior to last year, the increase in the number of visitors to the county had been substantial,” she said. “Most people before this organization existed did not know where McHenry County was. Not only does this attract visitors, but it also becomes a point of pride for residents and an attraction for employers. “
Schober noted that as the MVC celebrates its 16th anniversary, the MCEDC celebrates its 30th. “It’s a good partnership,” she said. “We were happy to be there early on to help them get started and we are very proud of their many successes over the years and how they have continued to develop.”
Bonnie Heimbach also remembers the humble beginnings of the MCCVB, when it was a powerful force of an employee with a budget of $ 100,000 that she helped start.
Heimbach, now retired from the Northern Illinois Tourism Development Bureau, said seeing the organization move from consensus building to county-wide support and grant making to strategic and successful marketing initiatives was gratifying.
“We’ve always had these things, the apple orchards, the green spaces, the square, etc. – we had these great amenities, but it was just everyone doing their little thing,” she said. . “They were just pieces of what could be a bigger picture.”
She said Visit McHenry County had also done a great job reminding residents of what was in their own backyard and how best to enjoy it with things like the event listings on visitmchenrycounty.com and the route capabilities of the new Visit McHenry County IL app.
And it all started with a core of volunteers visiting village and town councils in the early 2000s.
“I think we went to 49 different communities,” she said. “Some didn’t have hotels. But everyone had something. Each community received an in-person presentation on how supporting this office would pay dividends for all.”
Although the office remains somewhat small with just two full-time staff, it has grown significantly in terms of budget, stature and achievements, she added. The office’s budget was just under $ 500,000 in 2019, reduced to around $ 330,000 in 2020, and is expected to rise to $ 500,000 soon.
“It’s also a testament to the organization, that Jaki is only the second executive director in 16 years. It’s not a high-turnover job. It’s a passion for where they live and where they work. They believe in it, ”she said. noted. “What better ambassador would you want to have than to have a resident who loves the place they live and wants to encourage others to take advantage of it.”
In its continued evolution to better reach its audience, Visit McHenry County is in the midst of a re-branding initiative in partnership once again with the MCEDC as well as the McHenry County government. Berggren and Austin said they plan to launch the new brand identity this fall and fully implement it by summer 2022.
“We are a resource that is available to everyone,” Berggren said. “Coming out of the pandemic, the bright side of our organization will be that we have become much more visible locally to many residents and stakeholders who previously could not quite understand what we are capable of doing.
“We’re not just a destination marketing organization, but we’re also a brand manager for the place we call McHenry County.”