Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Car driving along winding road through autumn woods © Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Wisconsin's tourism industry is intertwined with our abundant and beautiful natural resources like the fall colors of Marinette County.
© Wisconsin Department of Tourism

October 2012

Travel Green Wisconsin™

Where tourism and natural resources intersect.

Shelly Allness

Virginia Hirsch is a storyteller and owner of Bayfield Heritage Tours, a walking tour adventure covering the history of this tiny town of 300 that looks out on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You can't get any more low impact than a business that relies on walking as its main method of transporting customers where the owner handles operations from the front seat of her Prius.

Perhaps, many would argue in terms of impact, the Lake Express Ferry of Milwaukee is on the other end of the spectrum. Yet, go to their website where prominent home page real estate is dedicated to their commitment to modeling the next generation of green transportation.

Both businesses rely on visitors to survive and one could argue that both owe their existence to their enviable location in Great Lakes ports. But it's exactly that point where tourism and the natural resources intersect that has given rise to Travel Green Wisconsin™, a program now in its fifth year.

Preserving the environment and strengthening tourism

Tourism is big business in Wisconsin. Picture it this way: every time 250 cars cross the state line, it equals one job supported and $7,000 in tax revenue. However, pressure from competition means no state or travel destination can rest on its laurels when it comes to attracting travelers. That is where the Department of Tourism, tasked with driving tourism through marketing, steps in.

The state has successfully hung its hat on "fun" to market the state because of its flexibility in telling stories about travel in the state. One of the most popular stories and probably the best selling point to vacationers is its natural beauty and resources.

The state's tourism industry recognizes how its natural resources are symbiotically intertwined with their business success and how protecting these resources is a responsibility. In fact, many don't consider it an option, but rather a full time requirement in order to preserve the very resources our visitors are coming to explore.

"We look at Lake Superior every day, our business depends on it. We recognize that from a tourism business standpoint, maintaining the environment is critical," says Mike Radke, operations manager of the Madeline Island Ferry.

The birth of Travel Green Wisconsin™

In 2006, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism brought together tourism and environmental leaders from around the state to discuss the concept of green travel. A nationwide green movement was taking off; Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" was winning Oscar and Nobel awards, the green movement dominated celebrity news and media airways, and certification programs for the building and hotel industries were mushrooming around the country.

It wasn't clear what "green travel" would look like in Wisconsin, however, then Tourism Secretary Jim Holperin, a former executive director of Trees for Tomorrow, knew that with Wisconsin's deep roots in stewardship, and a roster of environmental leaders such as Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin should be leading the way.

Thus, in 2007 Travel Green Wisconsin™ was launched. Today, Travel Green Wisconsin™ is a voluntary certification program that reviews, certifies and recognizes tourism businesses, nonprofits, destinations or events that have made a commitment to continuously improve their operations in order to reduce their overall environmental impact.

Businesses use the application – essentially a minibusiness plan with tools to implement smart business decisions – to score their "green-ness," which is in turn reviewed by third-party sustainability experts contracted with the state. A minimum score serves as a benchmark to achieve certification; however most businesses go above and beyond the minimum due to their deep passion and commitment to the environment. That is where the phrase "continuous improvement" in the program description comes in.

Travel Green Wisconsin™ members are encouraged to continually boost their scores by seeking out practices to become even more sustainable, but in a way that still makes sense for their operational and profit goals. Businesses and organizations use their Travel Green Wisconsin™ network to share ideas and learn from others. The program helps them evaluate their operations, set goals and take specific actions towards environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Wisconsin's green travel network: inclusive and innovative

One of the unique features of Travel Green Wisconsin™ that sets it apart from other state-offered programs is the variety of businesses that can achieve certification. The list now includes tourism experiences from wineries, outriggers, festivals, marinas and museums to traditional hospitality businesses visitors would expect to see included, such as lodging properties and restaurants.

Since the initial pilot project that started in four communities just six years ago, over 330 tourism businesses, organizations and events have stepped up to offer green travel options to their visitors.

Key to its success is the diversity of members, which has made Travel Green Wisconsin™ the first comprehensive green travel program in the nation. It continues to be a model used by other states. We've even had guests from Morocco come learn about our innovative program!

One of the reasons businesses are signing on is because they understand that consumers have come to expect businesses to do their part in preserving and protecting our natural resources. Recent travel research shows that third party green certification is important to consumers in this day and age.

According to a recent TripAdvisor™ survey, travelers are even willing to pay more to be green. Half of the travelers surveyed reported they would spend more money to stay at an eco-friendly accommodation. This is a big step for green travel.

So how successful has Wisconsin's tourism industry been in making a difference and lessening its environmental footprint? In a recent study conducted by the Department of Tourism, 27 Travel Green Wisconsin™ members surveyed in Door County reduced their annual water use by over 610,000 gallons. That's the equivalent of 5.8 million filled 13.5 oz. water bottles. Stack them end-to-end and those water bottles equal the distance between Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

Those same Door County businesses have had positive impacts on their energy use, as well. Through energysaving practices, including simple acts such as turning off power strips and appliances when not in use, those 27 businesses reduced their annual energy usage by over 177,000 kWh, saving more than $17,000. This reduction in energy use also results in lower CO2 emissions.

Solid waste production is another area these businesses preserve our resources. Collectively, the Door County businesses reduced their waste production by an estimated 142 tons annually through reuse, recycling and composting programs – the weight of 232 passenger vehicles. Measurements like these just begin to tell the story of the positive impact the tourism industry is making in improving the state's land, water and air.

A pillar of Travel Green Wisconsin™ certification that has been embraced by the tourism industry is that businesses call the shots on how they go about conserving resources. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability as the program works with businesses of all sizes and types. What works for the Franklin Victorian Bed & Breakfast in Sparta may not work for the Days Inn™ in urban Madison.

This has spurred innovation and creativity. One example is Great Lakes Distillery™ in Milwaukee. They obtained permission from the federal government to reuse their product bottles. They are believed to be the only distillery in the nation to implement this. As to why they chose to become a Travel Green Wisconsin™ member, distillery founder Guy Rehorst says, "A lot of consumers are serious about the environment; the Travel Green Wisconsin™ program demonstrates that we are too. The tools Travel Green Wisconsin™ provides allow consumers to easily find businesses like ours that are taking steps to do business in an environmentally friendly way."

The MillerCoors™ Milwaukee Brewery, another Milwaukee-based business, installed a green roof near their public Beer Garden, educating visitors on its yearround heating and cooling benefits. Additionally, in 2011 the brewery installed a system that enables the use of reclaimed water in pasteurizers to reduce the amount of water needed to pasteurize beer.

According to MillerCoors™ Guest Relations Supervisor, Andy Alberti, "water and energy are precious, and MillerCoors™ efforts to reduce the use of these resources resonate well with our guests."

Spur of the Moment Ranch in Mountain has earned high scores for installing on-demand water heaters and high efficiency in-floor heating in their rental cabins. They purchase organic bar soap for their sinks and use liquid soap dispensers in the showers. Because the ranch allows horse guests, they have undertaken vermicomposting manure to produce worm castings (a natural compost product) that is sold to gardeners and landscapers.

Photo of a rustic log building © Wisconsin Department of Tourism
Spur of the Moment Ranch in Mountain.
© Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Not every effort has to include green roofs and biofuel-powered vehicles. Even simple acts by the tourism industry are recognized for their cumulative impact on reducing demand and preserving resources. For example, providing newspapers only to customers who request them, implementing a linen reuse program, composting, recycling and taking steps to educate staff and customers, all of these practices play a role in supporting greener travel.

Take Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters™ in Watertown. The owners encourage customers to use bikes by offering them free coffee. They also started a rain barrel program where they provide rain barrels at cost to customers to help reduce runoff in their local watershed.

Deep in the Chequamegon National Forest, Lakewood Resort and Forest Ridge Golf Course takes great care to use only biodegradable food and drink products and has implemented an integrated pest management system to reduce chemical use.

One Wisconsin event has served as the premier learning laboratory for all kinds of businesses in the state. The annual Midwest Renewable Energy Fair is the nation's longest running and largest energy education event of its kind. It's a source for businesses searching for creative ideas and answers to their questions on how a business can take their green programs to the next level.

Wisconsin's own State Fair Park recognizes the importance and value of setting a good example, as well. They continue to seek out green practices that will enhance their sustainability and operational efforts. They have installed solar panels, rain gardens and energy efficient lighting. In 2008, they were recognized by Conserve Wisconsin for having the largest utility savings of any state agency with a 42 percent reduction.

One of the jewels of Wisconsin's great outdoors is our state park system. The Department of Natural Resources was quick to step up and partner with Tourism in green travel efforts. Today, all of our state parks are Travel Green Wisconsin™ certified; even a few state trails and forests have jumped onboard and become certified. This is an excellent example of support for nurturing tourism in a sustainable manner.

The Triple Bottom Line philosophy

Saving the earth's resources is also more than a feel-good venture. Businesses find that not only does it provide a marketing advantage; it helps the bottom line, too.

"We subscribe to the ‘Triple Bottom Line' philosophy, of looking at the financial, social and environmental consequences of the way we run our business," says Steve and Nancy Sandstrom, owners and operators of the highest scoring Travel Green Wisconsin property, the Pinehurst Inn Bed & Breakfast in Bayfield. "It has to make good business sense and work for our operation."

Tourism businesses and destinations have discovered a return on investment through their participation. Members realize financial savings in the form of reduced energy, water and waste disposal bills. They attract new and repeat customers as a result of the Travel Green Wisconsin™ status. Having the Travel Green Wisconsin™ logo in the window, on the website or brochure lets their visitors know that they care about our resources.

This passion runs deep with our Travel Green Wisconsin™ members, they want to do their part to preserve, protect and conserve our state's beauty for future generations. This certification program offers them that opportunity.

Green travel in Wisconsin is a winwin for our state, for the tourism industry, for the state's natural resources and the visitor. As you plan your own vacations, consider supporting a Travel Green Wisconsin™ certified business. To find out who they are, visit TravelWisconsin.com

Shelly Allness works at the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.