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The last resorts? Minnesota vacation spots dwindle, but survivors say they're thriving

Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake near Brainerd reports an uptick in reservations related to Minneapolis hosting the Super Bowl at the U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4. Submitted photo1 / 2
A community of 21 garden cottages are part of the resort offerings at Grand View Lodge. The Cottages sleep up to 14 people. Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Tens of thousands of vacationers will pack up their cars this week and travel to resorts, cabins and campgrounds around the state to celebrate Independence Day.

And they'll flock to fewer resorts than parents and grandparents making the trips had access to in decades prior.

The number of resorts in the state has been almost cut in half since 1985, according to a state report. But guests keep frequenting the remaining spots, steadily raising the amount Minnesota resorts and campgrounds bring in each year.

Resort owners able to stick it out reported increased sales in recent years, and ahead of the busiest week for many, resort and campground owners sense of optimism for the summer season.

"People are having a very good summer," John Edman, director of state tourism promotion agency Explore Minnesota, told Forum News Service. "Occupancy is very good at many of the resorts and attractions throughout the state."

In Minnesota, the tourism industry brings in $15.3 billion a year and attracts more than 73 million travelers annually. And it employs more than 270,000 workers in the state, roughly 11 percent of Minnesota's private sector workforce. Leisure and hospitality industries in Minnesota generate 18% of the state's sales tax revenues.

The state Legislature this year approved a $28.7 million appropriation for tourism efforts over the next two years. And the tourism office can hit additional private funding match requirements.

Resort numbers shrink, remaining owners going strong

Minnesota resorts are fewer and farther between than they were three decades ago.

A state report released last month showed the number of resorts and campgrounds in the state has been almost cut in half in the last 30 years. In 2017, there were 716 resorts in the state, that's down 27.2 % from the number in 2004 and 48% from 1985 when the state reported 1,378 resorts were in operation.

Despite the decrease in the number of resorts, Minnesota resort owners in 2017 reported increased tax collections. Resorts in the state brought in $18.7 million in tax revenue in 2017, up 25 percent from a decade prior.

Resorts and campgrounds that have stayed the course have had to make updates to keep up with changing interests of resort-goers and to keep pace with competitors.

Caitlin Norby, general manager at Fair Hills Resort in Detroit Lakes, said the facility has largely remained traditional in its activities and offerings but has made some changes like expanding resort-wide WiFi access or adding shorter-term stays to accommodate guests.

“We don’t have a magic solution or button, but we’re doing great, so there are no concerns right now,” Norby said.

Larger resorts have also expanded to take on the additional demand. Frank Soukup, director of Marketing for Cote Family Destinations, which manages Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, said the resort has spent more than $55 million in recent years adding a boutique hotel to the property along with additional cabins and a recreation facility.

“The demand has been there for the past couple years so we decided expansion was the best thing we could do,” Soukup said.

And the new rooms and cabins have been booked up heading into the busiest weeks of the year. Soukup said the resort has aimed to attract a broad base of guests including couples, conference-goers, families meeting up for reunions and others as it expanded its activity and facility options.

“The key is to try to make as many amenities as possible so that the only reason people are bored is because they want to be,” Soukup said.

Help wanted

While the strong economy has helped drive the demand for more vacations in Minnesota, it has also spurred a shortage in the workforce. Resorts across the state have job openings posted for lifeguards, activity directors, servers or groundskeepers that they've struggled to fill in a landscape where there are more open jobs in the state that unemployed people to fill them.

“Getting people is probably the biggest challenge that folks are facing out there,” Ben Wogsland, director of government operations at Hospitality Minnesota, said.

Soukup said Grand View and other resorts in the area struggle to attract a skilled workforce. And Norby said Fair Hills Resort has been fortunate to employ 35 international students working through J-1 visas.

“Without them, we’d be in a world of hurt,” Norby said.

Despite the workforce shortage, the bulk of those surveyed in an Explore Minnesota survey shared positive expectations about the summer season. Thirty-six percent of the more than 200 lodging and camping industry representatives who took the survey said they expected occupancy between June and August to exceed last's summer's numbers. And 43% of those surveyed said they expect to bring in more revenue this summer.

For many, strong bookings for the summer months are a positive sign as a long Minnesota winter and especially wet spring adversely affected reservations. May occupancy in the state was at around 63 percent in May, down slightly as compared to May of 2018. Year-to-date occupancy levels were also down overall compared to that figure in May of 2018.

Not all regions saw the slump in reservations, though. Northern Minnesota, the St. Cloud/I-94 Corridor and Mankato saw increases in occupation statistics as compared to May of 2018, the state lodging performance report shows.

Eighteen percent of the lodging and campground owners surveyed said they expected lower occupancy this summer compared to the summer of 2018 as well as lower revenue.

What are Minnesota's top 10 tourist destinations?

1. Mall of America — 40 million visited the Bloomington attraction in 2017

2. Chain of Lakes Regional Park in Minneapolis — 7.06 million visited in 2017

3. Como Park — nearly 5.4 million people visited the St. Paul attraction in 2017

4. National Sports Center in Blaine — 4.1 million visited in 2017

5. Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park — 2.8 million visited in 2017

6. Mississippi Gorge Regional Park — 2.7 million people visited in 2017

7. Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center and Park — 2.5 million visited the Duluth destination in 2017

8. Xcel Energy Center — 2.2 million visitors in 0217

9. Target Field — 2.1 million visited the Minneapolis home of the Minnesota Twins

10. Minnehaha Park — Just more than 2 million people visited the Minneapolis park in 2017

— Rankings by Explore Minnesota.