The new executive director of the McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau has quite a few ideas brewing, including a McHenry County smartphone app, a geocaching scavenger hunt and even paying prominent bloggers to come and check out the county.
But for now, Jaki Berggren said she is focusing on the visitor bureau's immediate goals -- increasing its membership and its visibility within the county itself.
Berggren, 37, of Huntley, was chosen to serve as new director after being named interim director in late April, when former executive director Cort Carlson took a position as director of economic development in Woodstock. Berggren had served for three years as the bureau's manager of group sales, a position now filled by Laura Witlox.
The bureau has an annual budget of $325,000 and about 85 members, ranging from hotels and restaurants to boutique stores and apple orchards, plus tourist attractions, Berggren said.
Right now, however, only five restaurants in the entire county are members of the bureau, which means they get preferential treatment to be showcased to tourists, Berggren said. "That's a huge potential right there," she said.
The biggest misconception about McHenry County comes from its residents, Berggren said.
"A lot of people who live here can't understand why anyone would visit McHenry County. But I find that is the case with all places -- Rockford, Kankakee, Belvidere -- if you live there you wouldn't vacation there," she said. And sometimes, residents themselves have never toured, or even heard of, some of the county's attractions.
The bureau's strength traditionally has been to bring in groups of tourists on motor coaches who spend a day or two touring attractions like the Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington Hills, Woodstock Square in Woodstock, Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Bettendorf Castle in Fox River Grove, and more, she said.
Fall is big for agritourism -- think apple-picking and "fun on the farm" experiences -- that often attracts couples and families. "We're the closest place for that if you come from downtown Chicago. We want to make sure you don't drive though us to go to Wisconsin, or go to Indiana."
In addition, the bureau also tries to tap into the sports market by enticing people to host regional or national tournaments, and is also trying to reach young people -- tomorrow's parents -- via social media like Twitter and Facebook, she said.
The bottom line is that tourism helps everyone, Berggren said. In 2010, the county's share of tourism-related tax revenues was $6 million, she said. "The more tourism you bring into the county as a tax base revenue, the more it helps our community. That means less cutting of police force, the fire force, the teachers," she said.
Berggren previously worked as meeting sales manager for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and as sales manager at hotels such as Embassy Suites O'Hare and Indian Lakes Resort. She also handled group sales at the ESPN Zone in Chicago.