Pandemic forces shift toward tourism promotion of McHenry County’s outdoor spaces

Naturally McHenry County board member Erin McElroy speaks to guests at an event celebrating the a rebranding of Visit McHenry County on Thursday, March 3, 2022, at the Dole in Crystal Lake.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on local businesses around McHenry County helped underscore the region’s strength as a destination for outdoor recreation, tourism officials said.

Like in many other regions, the pandemic has hurt local businesses, including hotels and restaurants, but there was a silver lining for some outdoor venues such as farms, Naturally McHenry County marketing director Kristine Austin said.

“Some of the places like Richardson Adventure Farm had some of the best years they’ve ever had,” Austin said. “We knew that the natural setting was there, but the pandemic definitely amplified the importance of those spaces to our area.”

Naturally McHenry County, formerly known as Visit McHenry County, already was planning to rebrand before the pandemic, President Jaki Berggren said, but the pandemic provided both an impetus and opportunity for a fresh start.

“It was time to focus on our niche and move forward with rebranding,” Berggren said. “Not only is McHenry [County] great with natural outdoor activities and a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, but it’s a natural place to choose. Where else would you go?”

Local businesses leaders and some state officials celebrated the brand’s launch Thursday at the historic Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake.

The new logo and tagline, “Wonderful places and wide open spaces,” was announced in January.

An all-new visitor guide and potted anthuriums are available for guests celebrating the launch of Naturally McHenry County, a rebranding of Visit McHenry County, on Thursday, March 3, 2022, at the Dole in Crystal Lake.

Just before the pandemic, the organization conducted focus groups and surveys to find out what residents and businesses considered the “essence” of McHenry County, Berggren said.

Berggren said the “naturally” wordage had a double meaning, relating both to McHenry County’s scenic setting and the county being a logical choice for tourists to visit. The rebranding effort included a new visitors guide that is available around town, including at the organization’s visitor center in downtown Huntley, and a website that will be relaunched in July.

The effort also led to a greater sense of coordination and partnerships between Naturally McHenry County and the area’s municipalities and organizations, Berggren said.

“We’ve always had a relationship with municipalities,” Berggren said. “But in the past we stayed in our lane [and] they stayed in theirs. During the pandemic, we had to work together a lot more on similar messaging.”

The organization will continue to look for “unique” ways to receive local monetary support and reach a wider audience for things such as grant funding, Berggren said.

At the launch event, several local leaders and members of the organization spoke about what made the county and its businesses special.

Guest celebrate the launch of Naturally McHenry County, a rebranding of Visit McHenry County, on Thursday, March 3, 2022, at the Dole in Crystal Lake.

“The visitor-based economy is incredibly important to all of us,” said Jim McConoughey, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., which was part of the rebranding effort along with the county government. “We have tourism as a big economic driver. It’s something for us to play and have fun with, and to raise our children in this environment.”

Illinois Office of Tourism Deputy Director Karla Flannery said the county’s approach to marketing mirrors the state tourism board’s.

“We needed to change our approach with new data,” Flannery said on her office’s recent initiatives. “Customer behavior has changed, and we’ve learned that customers are willing to travel. Our team works to promote Illinois as a premier destination for all types of travelers, showcasing our state and its attractions, including the one-of-a-kind destinations in McHenry County.”

Flannery said she appreciates the beauty and architecture of Crystal Lake and that visiting different parts of the state was one of her favorite aspects of being the state tourism director.

“Our programs have allowed us to invest in small businesses during a time when so many across the state have been struggling,” Flannery said. “We are investing in people who are running businesses that form the backbone of our economy and are the soul of our state.

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