Reflecting on past successes, Visit McHenry County eyes bold future
Back in the days leading up to the creation of the McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau, now doing business as Visit McHenry County, local economic development experts knew that hundreds of thousands of potential grant and visitor dollars were going untapped.
State grant dollars earmarked for promoting local tourism weren't 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 the Woodstock Square or the family memories to be made at Richardson Adventure Farm or Von Bergen's or Royal Oak Farm Orchard, well, they wouldn't come.
It was time to get organized. And so, in late summer 2005, the convention 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 early years were spent determining our niche," said Berggren, who first started as sales manager for the organization under then Executive Director Cort Carlson in 2009.
"What we have found is that agritourism has been and probably always will be one of our major draws," she continued. "But the thing that's also very attractive for people traveling here and those from larger cities is the feeling of Americana, the quaintness of these cute little towns dotted throughout the countryside, the great restaurants that are farm-to-table, unique amenities like the wakeboard park in Crystal Lake and the special events like Blues, Brews & BBQ, the Autumn Drive, Pridefest, the dying of the Fox River and Groundhog Days.
"We'll never have the sheer mass quantities of attractions that a city like Chicago has, but we have some incredibly inviting 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 the sales and marketing manager, and others about how far the organization has come.
At first, it was all about buy-in, said Carlson and Jean Schober, vice president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., which essentially birthed VMC back in the 2000s. Getting neighboring towns that were in competition for that almighty visitor dollar to realize that joining forces would prove beneficial to all was, initially, a challenge.
"After we made the rounds for a bit, it all started making more sense for individual town leaders to recognize that 'Yeah, what we have is cool, but when you add it all together it's really, really cool," said Carlson, who still lives in McHenry County but now is executive director of Enjoy Aurora. "I certainly think as a result of changing that mindset, and putting in the effort to promote the county as a whole, McHenry County now has far better name recognition as a viable destination.
"If you're looking to visit an apple orchard in the fall, for example, you've got to go to McHenry County. If you're looking for the World's Largest Corn Maze, you've got to go to McHenry County," he said. "And while visitors are here, they're buying gas, they're having lunch or dinner, maybe doing some shopping. The dollars add up."
Carlson added that if the pandemic-provoked lockdowns of 2020 proved anything, it was the effect of tourism dollars. "It became painfully obvious how important it was to have out-of-towners here spending money," he said. "Visitors typically don't use the services that tax dollars support, like police and fire, but they leave those dollars here, which offsets the cost for residents. It's hugely impactful to the economy."
Schober said that when the MCCVB became certified in 2007, it became the 41st convention and visitors bureau in Illinois. The dollars the organization continues to draw to the area are key, she said.
"Prior to last year, the increase of visitors to the county had been substantial," she said. "Most people, prior to this organization's existence, didn't know where McHenry County was. Not only does it bring visitors, but it also becomes a point of pride for residents and a draw for employers."
Schober noted that as VMC celebrates its 16th anniversary, the MCEDC is celebrating its 30th. "It's been a good partnership," she said. "We were glad to be there at the beginning to help them launch and we're very proud of their many successes over the years and how they've continued to grow."
Bonnie Heimbach also recalls the MCCVB's humble beginnings, when it was a mighty force of one employee with a $100,000 budget that she helped get started.
Heimbach, now retired from the Northern Illinois Tourism Development Office, said watching the organization grow from consensus-building to countywide support and from grant capture to strategic and successful marketing initiatives has been gratifying.
"We always had these things, the apple orchards, the green spaces, the Square, etc. -- we had these great amenities, but it was just everyone off doing their own little thing," she said. "It was just bits and pieces of what could be a bigger picture."
She said Visit McHenry County also has done an excellent job of reminding residents of what's in their own back yard, and how best to enjoy it with things like event lists on visitmchenrycounty.com and the itinerary capabilities of the new Visit McHenry County IL app.
And it all started with a core group of volunteers visiting village boards and city councils in the early 2000s.
"I think we went to 49 different communities," she said. "Some didn't have hotels. But everyone had something. Every community received an in-person presentation on how supporting this bureau would pay dividends to all."
While the office remains somewhat small with just two full-time employees, it has grown mightily in budget, stature and achievements, she added. The bureau's budget was just shy of $500,000 in 2019, reduced to about $330,000 in 2020 and is expected to climb back up to the $500,000 level soon.
"It's a testament to the organization, too, that Jaki is just the second executive director in 16 years. It's not a high-turnover job. It's one of passion for where they live and where they work. They believe in it," she said. "What better ambassador do you want to have than to have a resident who loves where they live and wants to encourage others to enjoy it."
In its continuing 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 government of McHenry County. Berggren and Austin said they anticipate launching the new brand identity this fall and having it fully implemented by summer 2022.
"We're a resource that is available for everybody," Berggren said. "Coming out of the pandemic, the silver lining for our organization is going to be that we became a lot more visible locally to a lot of residents and stakeholders who previously couldn't quite grasp what we are able to do.
"We're not only a destination marketing organization, but we're also a brand manager of the place we call McHenry County."