There is plenty going on in the Chippewa Valley to attract visitors. Sometimes there are not enough hotel rooms to accommodate them all. It makes sense, then, that a number of new hotels have popped up across the region in recent years.
Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, believes the increase in the number of hotel rooms is a culmination of many important growth initiatives that make the Eau Claire area more and more desirable as a place to live, work and visit. Many of those visitors come to the Chippewa Valley for one of the major music festivals held each summer, when hotels are full. John said the new hotel inventory will help generate additional visitor spending during those peak festival times. The next job is to keep filling those rooms throughout the rest of the year.
“Our main marketing challenge, then, is to focus on ‘need times’ to help get visitors to our area and filling up the hotels,” John said. “We are working on assisting existing events to become even greater destination drivers — such as the Eau Claire Jazz Festival/52nd Street, Eau Claire Marathon and the Light Up Eau Claire New Year’s Eve Gala — focusing on smaller niche groups and continuing to support and recruit sports tournaments and events.”
Big music festivals are now a regular feature of the summer scene in the Chippewa Valley, but, 30 years ago, Western Wisconsin may have seemed an unlikely place to host such big events. 1987 saw the founding of Country Fest in a farm field in Cadott. It turned out that the chance to see several big-name artists in a single weekend, all in the setting of the relaxed, rural countryside and within driving distance of Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, was an attractive one.
“Many people from larger cities come early, just to enjoy the scenery,” said Andrew Krauss, public relations and community events coordinator for Country Fest and its sister event, Rock Fest, which launched in 1994. While most fans come from Wisconsin and Minnesota, some come from much farther away.
“I personally have met people from Puerto Rico, Europe and Australia (at the festivals),” Krauss said.
Three decades after that 1987 experiment, Visit Eau Claire estimated the economic impact of the two festivals at just shy of $9 million each in 2015.
“We are extremely proud to have a positive impact on the Chippewa Valley’s economy,” Krauss said. “We also take pride in knowing we’re able to provide a great experience for country and rock fans.”
In 1990, Country Jam USA was founded just west of Eau Claire in the town of Union. Held in late July, Country Jam has the biggest estimated economic impact of any event in the Eau Claire area — around $9.4 million in 2015, according to Visit Eau Claire.
Country Jam USA President Jim Bischel said the first event drew a few thousand fans, but Jam rode the crest of a country music boom in the early 1990s and was drawing close to 25,000 fans per day within five years. Most of those fans come from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Quite a few fans come from Canada as well. Bischel said he’s pleased that Country Jam plays such a major role in the local economy.
“It’s nice to be an important part of the community,” Bischel said. “There’s also a sense of responsibility, because the festivals are as important as they are.” In fact, music festivals bring in about 11 percent of the region’s annual tourism dollars, according to Visit Eau Claire.
Bischel launched a smaller niche festival aimed at bluegrass music fans in 2015. He’s expecting the Blue Ox Music Festival to draw close to 5,000 people for its third running June 8-10. While the economic impact is much smaller, estimated at around $1.4 million, Blue Ox already has a dedicated fan base, drawing bluegrass fans from 49 states in its first year.
“They never ever would have found Eau Claire on the map without the Blue Ox Festival,” Bischel said.
Another big music festival will return for its third year on the Country Jam grounds this June. The eclectic Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival is co-curated by Eau Claire’s own Justin Vernon — who has won two Grammy awards with has band, Bon Iver. Creative director Michael Brown said Eau Claire was the perfect place for Vernon to bring together the group of musicians he grew up with and all of the artists who come in from outside the area to collaborate.
The two-day Eaux Claires festival drew more than 40,000 fans each of its first two years. They came from all 50 states and as far away as Greece and London. Organizers say around 1,000 attendees traveled from other countries. Brown said he’s been staggered by the feedback from local businesses who say Eaux Claires gives them a boost.
“It’s not just the volume of people, it’s the type of people that we’re bringing to the festival,” Brown said. “They are interested in boosting local commerce. They are interested in coming and sharing.”
This year’s event, slated for June 16-17, features acts as diverse as Chance the Rapper, Paul Simon, and a collaboration between Bon Iver and country/folk singer-songwriter John Prine.
Eau Claire’s longest-running music festival has been around for more than 50 years. The Eau Claire Jazz Festival, April 21-22, has multiple aspects. More than 114 high school and college jazz bands participated in the educational part of the festival last year. An estimated 3,200 people roamed downtown Eau Claire for an event known as “52nd Street,” during which 16 venues offer live music in a tribute to the historic New York jazz club scene. The State Theatre will host headliner concerts featuring former Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen and drummer Carl Allen.
With the addition of the 52nd Street event a few years ago, the long-running jazz festival seems to be gaining steam.
“I think people keep coming back because of our educational aspect and the amazing teachers we bring in to teach the students throughout the weekend, the fun people have on 52nd Street, and the amazing guest artists who play on our headliner concerts,” said operations manager Gweni Smith.
Music festivals aren’t the only events drawing visitors to the Chippewa Valley. Jackie Boos, tourism director for the Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Northern Wisconsin State Fair and Oktoberfest are among Chippewa County’s other top draws. The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company’s Leinie Lodge Family Reunion is a big draw each Father’s Day weekend. Leinenkugels’ will host a special event this August celebrating its 150th anniversary in Chippewa Falls. Boos said that event is drawing international interest.
Having more hotel rooms available, including the first hotel in downtown Chippewa Falls since 1919, will help keep more people in the area overnight during the busy summer season, she said. Those visitors should find plenty to do.
“You will not find many weekends without multiple options of fun,” Boos said. “It’s a great ‘problem’ to have.”
Sporting events also play a big role in the Chippewa Valley’s tourism economy. The Eau Claire Marathon attracts nearly 4,000 participants each May, according to co-director Emi Uelmen. About half of those are from Eau Claire, but as a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon, Eau Claire’s race attracts a number of runners from other states.
Uelmen and her dad, Pat Toutant, stepped in to take over the Eau Claire Marathon when it was in danger of shutting down a few years ago. The marathon and its partners have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than 100 local charities since then, and participation has quadrupled.
“We are so excited to be part of something so impactful,” Uelmen said. “Adding a kids’ run has allowed us to show the impact of running to young kids that we hope will continue to exercise.”
A unique sporting event that has helped put Eau Claire on the map is the U.S. National Kubb Tournament in July, the largest tournament of its kind outside of Europe. The Nordic lawn game was little-known in Eau Claire when Eric Anderson and his wife, Erin, organized the first small tournament in 2007 to raise awareness and money to battle atrocities happening in Darfur, Sudan. Now the official national championship, the tournament attracts 128 teams and 460 players, with a few coming from as far away as California. Eau Claire now boasts the title of “Kubb Capital of North America.”
Anderson says the community has embraced the tournament and the sport.
“We have gotten a lot of support from the business community, Visit Eau Claire, the Eau Claire Area School District, the city and more,” Anderson said. “Together with many others in the community, we all love the game and all of us have introduced kubb to literally thousands of people over the years.”
A popular indoor sport was in the spotlight in April, as the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was chosen for a second time to host the 2017 College Table Tennis National Championships. The tournament, which was also held in Eau Claire in 2015, attracts around 1,000 participants.
This is not a complete list, by any means, but it’s clear that visitors to the Chippewa Valley should have no problem finding something to do this spring and summer, whether their tastes run to jazz, rock, or country music, a really long run or obscure Swedish lawn games. And now they’ll have a few more places to stay.