By Lisa Schmelz
Though difficult to measure in any objective sort of way, it’s quite possible that Stephanie Klett holds the title for having the most fun on the job in the state of Wisconsin. Before accepting the position as president and CEO of VISIT Lake Geneva, Klett served as the secretary of tourism under former Gov. Scott Walker. A cabinet level position, it’s safe to assume she probably had more fun than all the other 16 appointed cabinet secretaries combined.
“They were all envious,” says Walker on his cabinet secretaries’ reaction to Klett. “They used to joke at cabinet meetings that she was the secretary of fun. It’s a great job to begin with, and then you add Stephanie to it, and it’s a thousand times more fun.”
Did she have more fun than the governor himself? “Oh, no doubt about it,” says Walker, laughing. “My most enjoyable days were the days spent with her, doing tourism things. So, the fact that she got to do that 24/7, there’s no doubt she had the most fun of any of us.”
It makes sense. Think about it for a moment. What’s more fun? Running a state or traveling all over it, and touting its wonders and people? Equal parts cheerleader, ambassador, fun-seeker and a savvy marketing strategist, Klett always left politics at the door. In place of that which divides us, she sought to unite. Those little dots on the map of Wisconsin? They were, to her, as prominent as the big ones.
“Travel is not political,” says Klett. “Travel is about having fun. Fun is the number one motivator in travel.”
Crisscrossing Wisconsin for eight years as the secretary of tourism, and for nearly two decades as a host, writer and producer for “Discover Wisconsin,” an award-winning television and radio series, Klett had a lot of fun in an outside-the-box way. She was our Lewis and Clark, sharing all things Wisconsin and why we needed to experience them no matter where we hailed from on this big blue marble. When she posted on social media, and it was often, tens of thousands listened. There was, some said, an Oprah-effect when she shared a photo of a place or event — particularly one we didn’t know existed.
“People want to know what’s off the beaten path,” says Klett. “They want to travel in a way that’s real and memorable.”
Real, memorable and off-the-beaten-path were places like Warrens, Wisconsin, population 349. It is in Warrens that nearly 100,000 souls descend the last weekend of September to collectively honor, drum roll, please … the cranberry.
“It’s amazing,” Klett reflects, “All those people in Warrens, Wisconsin, at the world’s largest cranberry festival.”
Klett is recalling these and other memories over afternoon appetizers at Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub, looking out on Geneva Lake. Clipped to her billowing blouse is a name tag introducing her and her latest adventure: President and CEO of VISIT Lake Geneva. The last few months, she says, have been a whirlwind and she loves where she’s landed.
It’s a given that when a governor exits office, the administration’s political appointees do as well.
However, when Walker narrowly lost his re-election bid to Tony Evers, there were vocal champions to Klett’s left and right, physically and politically, calling on Evers to keep Klett at the helm of tourism. Her record-breaking results, they said, spoke for themselves. Tourism revenue was at an all-time high, at nearly $21 billion in 2017 (the most recent year figures available). That in turn generated more than $1.5 billion in local and state revenue. Under her leadership, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism had racked up over 125 awards for marketing and public relations, beating out companies like American Airlines, Spotify and Google.
Mary Bergin is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Madison, Wisconsin. Bergin admits she voted for Walker’s recall in 2012 and for his opponent in 2018. Yet in an op-ed she penned for the Wisconsin State Journal last November, she deemed keeping Klett a “no-brainer” decision for Evers.
What prompted Bergin’s public support of Klett? “Strong feelings about politics are increasingly dividing and alienating us,” explains Bergin, reached by email for this story. “I don’t consider myself an outspoken person when it comes to politics, but I felt a need to share my observations about Stephanie. She truly seems to work hard to represent Wisconsin’s best, regardless of a person’s or community’s political affiliations, and that type of attitude is what we need more of in this world.”
A NEW PATH
Any hope Evers would keep Wisconsin’s tourism sector apolitical by keeping Klett were dashed when he tapped Sara Meaney to head up the agency. Ever- poised, Klett, who reigned as Miss Wisconsin in 1992, took it in stride and wishes only the best for her successor and the state’s tourism industry.
However, Wisconsin’s loss turned out to be the Lake Geneva region’s gain. When a VISIT Lake Geneva board member reached out to her about applying for their head-honcho gig, Klett, who said she had multiple other offers — including running another state’s tourism department — thought the position worth exploring. Fast forward a couple of interviews, followed by a well-deserved vacation with her mother, Joanne, 87, and she’s now embracing her latest role with all the gusto she did for the entire state.
Before hitting the 16th hour mark in her new position and sitting down with At The Lake for this profile, she’d already met with dozens of stakeholders. VISIT Lake Geneva is both a chamber of commerce and an area convention and visitors bureau. Its name may feature Lake Geneva, but its membership, and the business entities it represents, stretch farther. Just as she did at the state level, Klett sees her role as shining her light, and the organization’s, broadly.
“Visitors don’t see town lines and they don’t see county lines,” she says. “They want to discover a region as much as possible and get an overview of an area.” Her plans here are to put into place best-practice marketing systems and processes that enhance the visitor experience and tap into previously ignored demographics.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 20,” she says of the area. “It has so much. The Santa Cruise. Nobody does that. It’s rockin’ the restaurant scene. Daddy Maxwell’s is in the shape of an igloo. You don’t see that everywhere. You can zip line, you can go to the beach, you can hike. It’s a remarkable destination.”
Klett’s pace and drive are relentless and could come from growing up as the only girl in a family of 10 kids. The daughter of Joanne (Urban) and the late Frederick Klett, she grew up in Beloit.
“She was born a month early and I always said it was because she knew she had so much to do and couldn’t wait to get started,” says Joanne Klett of her daughter. “I don’t know what it is about her, but things have always happened with her. The girl has energy and courage and is ready to take on the world.”
After graduating from Beloit College with a degree in philosophy and theater arts, she put her palpable energy to work in front of and behind the camera, as a host and producer for the award-winning “Discover Wisconsin” television and radio series. Nominated for eight Emmys, she received one in 2010 for Individual Excellence in On-Camera Hosting. In 2011, Walker selected her to head up the state’s tourism department.
It would be easy to assume that her newest position will allow her to exhale some. However, Klett, who also considered entering the ministry full-time following her work in state tourism, doesn’t see that happening. There’s a lot to do, she says, and as fun as her posts on social media make it look, the behind-the-scenes work requires constant care and feeding.
“I don’t think anything is lacking [here],” she says, motioning toward the lakefront from her table inside Sprecher’s. “But I think things can be positioned in a new way. And the more experiential things become, the more visitors want that experience. It’s about how we position ourselves in a very noisy world of marketing.”
But will that work be as much fun as she had these last eight years, covering the whole state?
Klett doesn’t miss a beat. “Even more.”