The pandemic threw the resort, park and museum industry curveballs no one saw coming, but a comeback is on the way.

That's according to three professionals in the local tourism industry who were invited to speak to the Alexandria Area Young Professionals Thursday, April 1.

AAYP is a group organized by the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce for business professionals under age 40 who are looking to network and learn more about the area. At monthly luncheons, different speakers are asked to present to the group.

Greg Bowen, Brad Bonk and Carol Swenson were the guest speakers at this month’s panel.

Bowen studied marketing and played golf in his college years. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect to work in the hospitality industry, but he and his wife have been running Brophy Lake Resort for 13 years.

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“What a fantastic choice it was not only to take to resort life, but we just flat out love the town of Alexandria and the people who live here,” Bowen said.

Bonk was working for the city of Willmar when the Douglas County Parks superintendent position opened up six years ago. He and his wife wanted to move closer to west central Minnesota where they grew up, so he took the opportunity.

Swenson said she accepted the job offer of Legacy of the Lakes Museum executive director in 2018 because she felt drawn to return to the area.

She taught junior high in Alexandria in the 1970s, but it was her experience directing the Otter Tail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls that increased her interest in local history.

“I’ve really enjoyed coming full circle back to the Alexandria area,” she said. “The community, the sense of place and the enthusiasm that community members have.”

Though all three expressed a passion for their roles, bouncing back from the repercussions of the onset of COVID-19 a year ago proved to be a challenge.

Bowen started to fear answering the phone last March. It seemed like every time it rang, another cancellation awaited.

“Normally, (spring) is the time when procrastinators are calling and filling in all my holes,” he said.

Instead, his calendar was clearing out.

In response, Brophy Lake Resort shifted the focus of its marketing to highlight extra sanitation measures, the safety of individual cabin reservations and outdoor venues.

Although in the past just the bedding sheets would be cleaned between each visit, comforters were added to the laundry pile after any visitor passed through, whether for four hours or two weeks. This hiked up the resort’s cleaning service costs and laundry bills, but Bowen said they were willing to do anything to stay open.

Brad Bonk, Douglas County parks superintendent, talks with Andrew Preston of Alexandria, about the master plan for Lake Brophy County Park April 2019. (Echo Press file photo)
Brad Bonk, Douglas County parks superintendent, talks with Andrew Preston of Alexandria, about the master plan for Lake Brophy County Park April 2019. (Echo Press file photo)

In the world of parks and recreation, Bonk said two contrasting storylines emerged. Outdoor activities saw a “huge, massive upswing,” but revenue-boosting events were wiped out.

During the stay-at-home order and business shutdowns, people swarmed to campgrounds and beaches. Bonk said public restrooms had to be cleaned seven days a week instead of one so that sanitation measures could be kept up with.

On the other hand, the loaded summer schedule of events booked for park facilities, including concerts, triathlons and 5K runs, were scratched.

At the museum, Swenson said the Legacy of the Lakes staff was hesitant to make any concrete decisions because of how frequently COVID-19 guidelines changed.

Interactive exhibits were blocked off, furniture was moved out and sanitation stations were provided. Because of its large gathering space, exceeding capacity limits wasn’t a concern, but any groups with family gatherings or weddings scheduled last summer were told they’d need to cancel.

One unexpected turn that ended up benefiting the museum was offering Facebook livestream videos in place of some in-person events. Swenson said they were able to reach a larger audience than she ever thought possible pre-pandemic, with one June video reaching 54,000 views.

“It just became an entirely different experience,” she said.

Looking forward to this summer season, Bowen said the resort’s cabins have returned to being booked solid. Last year was just a slight dip in business, he said, and the coming year looks “certainly rosier.”

Similar to Bowen’s resort, Bonk said trail use is on the rise and campgrounds are filling up. But when it comes to larger events, Bonk said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about scheduling those. One concert is tentatively planned for Brophy Park in August, but not a series of six shows like in previous years.

Swenson said the museum has returned to planning a full season of traditional events and hosting events in the gardens.

Since a majority of visitors hear about Alexandria through word of mouth, she added that local residents should tell others about the experiences they’ve had here. She said that by sharing personal stories, people are prompted to visit Alexandria for themselves to create their own memories.

“It’s an authentic community,” she said. “It’s not something that’s artificially constructed to attract tourism, but it’s a community that really cares. Tourism is integral to the city and the area.”