She Learns: Nuances of Small Towns that Survive on Tourism

I don’t really talk about why, but you’ve probably noticed that I spend a great deal of time in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, despite the fact that I primarily live in Milwaukee. I consider Three Lakes my “up north”, and that is mainly because my family owns a bar and restaurant there, Pike’s Pine Isle Lodge. 

If you know anything about the hospitality industry or opening a new business, you understand that this is very much an “all-hands-on-deck” operation. Admittedly, I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this family venture as extroverting that hard exhausts me on a level I didn’t know I could reach. There’s also a feeling of “leftoutedness” that I stumble upon occasionally since my whole family lives there and I don’t. All things considered, though, it has also become a part of me that has always kind of felt like it’s been there. It’s a solid link to my roots of growing up in the Northwoods and allows me to live a life I love in Milwaukee and a life I love to escape to up north.

The story of how my family got involved in the hospitality industry and ended up in Three Lakes is alone an interesting one, but that’s for another time. Today, I want to talk about a few nuances of a small lake community that survives on tourism and why, if you have any links to one of these types of communities, you should care.

  1. Weather holds all the power. Being Midwestern, we’re all inherently a little obsessed with the weather. It changes so frequently that we can’t help but let it be a driving force in our day. For towns that thrive or die on tourist traffic, this is especially true. Most Midwest lake communities make their money in the summer. For northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and UP businesses, that means that the bulk of their annual income occurs in about four months out of the year. If it’s a good winter (meaning lots of snow and not a lot of polar vortexing), winter can be a profitable time as well, but summer still reigns supreme. In towns with annual populations of a couple thousand people, it’s not uncommon to see that number reach the 20+ thousand mark during the warmer months. So, knowing that, think of the impact it can have when it’s a sloppy summer that just never really warms up. Or when there’s a winter with no snow. That’s an entire town that plans for these busy seasons that never sees the benefit. That’s year-round employees who work the hardest during the times when the rest of us are having the most fun, missing out on their biggest paychecks. A lot of people complain about the turnover in ownership of bars and restaurants in these communities, but it only takes one bad year for a business to go under. So, not only do business owners have to face the challenges that all business owners face, but they have the added variable of weather that can truly make or break them. 

  2. Most people have more than one “job”. We’re talking about towns that fluctuate so incredibly between seasons, so there’s a lot of additional work that goes into providing the best experience during the busy times. Most business owners are Chamber of Commerce board members, snowmobile club directors, Lion’s Club volunteers or any number of other member, volunteer, organizer, etc. that help keep the town running and a desirable tourist destination. If you need to be reminded about the Midwestern work ethic, visit any one of these communities during one of the summer high holidays and look for the folks behind the scenes. Not only are they keeping their businesses running during the highest capacity times, but they’re also helping to organize town fairs, holiday parades, fireworks, club rides, boat shows, etc. As someone who has been on both the fun-having and the work-doing sides of a weekend up north, I can attest that the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes is hard to imagine until you’re in it. 

  3. Community is everything. These communities truly operate in an “all for one and one for all” capacity. Just because the population quadruples in the summer, doesn’t mean the space does, so to accommodate the spike, everyone needs to get on board. That means all bars need to be open so visitors have some place to go. And all hotels and rental properties need to get to work so visitors have somewhere to stay. If one of these businesses disappears, it’s like a domino effect that can impact the entire town, including the locals who live there permanently who rely on these businesses for employment. For this reason, bar and restaurant owners need other bar and restaurant owners to succeed. And they do what they can to help each other out. And they grieve together when things go wrong. 

This past winter, in the span of a couple weeks, two major businesses in Three Lakes burned down. One was the 3 Lakes Diner and the other was the Oneida Village hotel and restaurant. They’re about a block from each other in the downtown area and both were key in serving the community and tourists. The ripple effects of these tragedies will continue to be felt for months, if not years, to come. The amount of water it took to put out the fire at the OV drained the town’s water tower. The town was on a “boil water warning” for days after the blaze and, in one night, the town’s water budget for the year was surpassed. Seven people, including the owner, lived at the OV permanently and lost everything. The OV was also the only true hotel in the town proper and contributed to 30 percent of the town’s hospitality taxes. These taxes are what fund the local Chamber of Commerce, so because of the fire, the Chamber won’t be seeing that money this year. And because the one main hotel is gone, that eliminates a major hospitality function for the town for the coming summer.

While tragedies like this happen and they are nothing short of devastating, one of the best parts of living in a small town is that everyone comes together in times of need. I saw it growing up in Antigo on multiple occasions and I see it often in Three Lakes. And, that leads me to point number four:

4. Tourist towns are resilient. It takes a true spine of steel to weather the weather and the ups and downs of business ownership in these communities. It’s an unfathomable amount of work to create a positive vacation experience for tourists, while also supporting a town in which folks live and work. But, people do it, because they love their town. They love the environment of being “up north” and creating the soul-changing experience for others to discover their small town. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.  

So, why should you care about all this? 

Much like I believe we should be connected to the food that we eat and the earth where we plant our feet, I think it’s important to be connected to the people who make our world turn. If you’re part of our community, you likely agree that some of the best trips around the sun include lake days and cabin weekends and Friday fish frys and Old Fashioneds. These things don’t happen by accident and it takes an army of people to create that experience. I never really saw myself being part of the hospitality business even at the periphery level I currently am, but I feel lucky to get insider access. It lets me really see what motivates people and recognize on a regular basis that people just like to see other people happy. You know we support small business whenever possible, and these communities exist pretty much exclusively on small business. So, be conscious of where you put your dollars and support the people who support you.


Yours in adventure, 



If you have any ties to the Three Lakes area and/or just want to assist in the relief efforts of the Oneida Village, you can donate to their gofundme here: