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In his final official duty, Otter Tail Tourism Association president Mike Pendy spoke at the annual meeting Sept. 24, above, hosted at Prante's on Otter Tail Lake.

Otter Tail lake country tourism stays strong this summer

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PERHAM -- No good economic news? No summer? No problem.

That appears to be the consensus among resort owners and operators in the Otter Tail lake country.

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Despite an economic downturn that is considered the worst since the Great Depression, resort lodging was booked.

Despite a cool, often cloudy and rainy, summer, people still came "up to the lakes."

"People are not giving up on their vacations," said Tres Jeltema, Shady Grove Resort on Rush Lake.

"With the economy, it was a big scare factor in the spring. We had a couple folks that had lost their jobs and cancelled their vacations," said Mike Pendy, outgoing president of the Otter Tail Country Tourism Association. "But for the most part, we had our normal number of folks in the summer...and in the fall, we prospered."

"I think they quit listening to the media complaining about how bad the economy is," laughed Mike Harris, Northern Lights Resort on Dead Lake.

This was some of the discussion at the Tourism Association's annual meeting, hosted Sept. 24 at Prante's on the Lake, on Otter Tail.

Nearly 30 attended the dinner and meeting, which was Pendy's final official meeting after six years as president of the association, which promotes lodging and tourism in the Otter Tail lake country.

"Value" is one of the main reasons this area's travel-tourism market has remained stable in difficult economic times, said Ron Sugden, the new president of the association.

"If you look at our rates compared to other areas of the state, we offer good value," said Sugden, owner of Bonnie Beach Resort on Clitherall Lake. "The peoples' vacation dollar goes a long way in this area."

"We aren't an expensive vacation," noted Mike Harris. "We're not Las Vegas, Disneyworld, Europe...we're not the cruise lines. People can still afford us."

Several resorters indicated that, while bookings held up well despite the economy, vacationers were more conservative with their spending while on vacation.

"I think the secondary spending was down a bit," said Sugden. "They maybe decided to have hotdogs on the grill one of the nights, instead of steak."

At Rush Lake's Shady Grove Resort, with its 17 cabins and eight RV sites, Wes Jeltema said lodging was on par with other years--thanks to the resort's 70 percent repeat business. Gas sales, ice cream sales in their shop, and some souvenir volume was down, he noted.

"They didn't spend money like past years...I think some of the extras were down," said Jeltema.

A resort owner since only 2005, Kathy Gruenenwald was nervous about the 2009 season, and still relatively new to the resort business. She found that people were booking from closer distances at her 10-unit Barky's Resort on Otter Tail.

Another phenomena, noted Gruenenwald, was "last minute reservations." This trend was experienced throughout the area, noted Jean Bowman, of the Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"People were making decisions on vacations much closer to the travel time," said Bowman. This suggests that economic uncertainty caused hesitation about taking vacations.

Another relative newcomer to the lodging business, Margie Shivler, of Xanadu Island Bed and Breakfast, on Elbow Lake, is pleased with her third year in business. Fueling her bookings were numerous couples booking their anniversaries, as well as family gatherings.

In his outgoing message to fellow members of the tourism group, Pendy said that the organization has "done a lot to boost the economy of the area...but we don't always get credit for what we do."

The group represents the Otter Tail lake country at a number of sport and travel shows in the Midwest, noted Pendy.

Otter Tail Country received its second "Explore Minnesota" marketing award in the past few years.

"We were honored along with Ely and Duluth, both much larger markets...so it shows we're moving in the right direction," said Pendy.

In existence since 1976, the association is the only organization that promotes on a Otter Tail County-wide basis, noted Cheryl Harris, Northern Lights Resort.

Looking back on the cool and often cloudy summer of 2009, Tres Jeltema noted that revenues were actually up for some of the extras and incidental items on resort counters: Sweatshirt sales.

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