Bishop Hill: Utopia on the prairie
Building better partnerships in tourism
BRIAN “FOX” ELLIS
Bishop Hill, Ill.
A place to land, a place to learn something new, to taste, to experience: this is what we seek when we vacation, an authentic experience.
About eight years ago, my wife and I took the leap and purchased the Colony Hospital in historic Bishop Hill, Ill., about an hour northwest of Peoria, and two hours west of Chicago. It served as a hospital through the Civil War and was converted to a bed and breakfast about 20 years ago. Today, we welcome guests from all over the country and tourists from the world over here at the Twinflower Inn.
The entire town is a registered historic landmark, with four restaurants, seven museums, and more than a dozen art galleries and craft shops, where you can watch the artists at work.
We love this town. Over the years, we have felt warmly welcomed and found many ways to weave ourselves into this tight-knit community of 120 souls. We have also learned much about tourism and running a small business that is applicable to any business of any size. Please allow us to share a few ideas.
Partnerships make all the difference
We moved to Bishop Hill in the month of February during a record-breaking cold spell. Because the place had been vacant for a while, we did not want to turn on the water until we were actually living there. So, while we were cleaning and getting things ready for the big move, we ate lunch every day at the Filling Station café. The owners noticed, and asked about our situation. Then without hesitation, they gave us keys to their restaurant. They said we could use the restrooms any time, 24/7, until we were settled.
This kind of unconditional support of the new kids in town was overwhelming … and everywhere!
And we have returned the favor a hundred-fold by sending many of our guests to their Friday-night dinners. We purchase our bread and pies at the Bishop Hill Bakery. We serve guests with pottery made at Hantverk Galleri. We sweep the floors with a Bishop Hill broom and serve produce from local farms.
Our Book Lovers’ Weekends are a perfect example of how we as a community work together. During the winter when tourism slows down a little, my wife and I host five weekends for book lovers at the Twinflower Inn. On Friday evening, we share dinner at the Filling Station. The Bakery caters Saturday lunch, and P.L. Johnson’s restaurant brings in Sunday dinner. We usually hire one of the local artists to host a paint-and-sip at the Bishop Hill Creative Commons. A local masseur offers in-room massages. And our local historian provides a “storyteller tour” of Bishop Hill. This one event helps all of the businesses in town during our slow season.
We are financially vested in the success of our neighbors. We know that working together with common goals allows all of our local businesses to flourish. We also know that if Bishop Hill does well, the Twinflower Inn will also do well.
Social media marketing
One way we have built stronger partnerships is through social media. Even before we moved, we built a web presence at TwinflowerInn.com. We helped to build VisitBishopHill.com and BishopHillCommons.com, and we manage three Facebook pages.
More importantly, we have made a strong effort to cross-link these pages, while educating other businesses in town about the importance of sharing and liking each other’s posts. Because of this network, we have helped each other build our algorithm, so everyone gets more views, and virtual traffic leads directly to foot traffic.
Working together, we have doubled the number of page likes for many of the shops in town, directly converting this social-media presence into reservations sold at the Twinflower Inn, tickets purchased for concerts, arts and crafts moving off the shelves.
We also have a few YouTube channels and a podcast, Fox Tales International, and we livestream many of our concerts on Facebook and at HeartlandConnections.com
And yes, the irony of a historic village with a cutting-edge modern marketing team is not lost on members of the Bishop Hill Arts Council. Many businesses reported having their best Christmas season in 10 years, pumping new vigor into Lucia Nights, one of the town’s largest annual events.
The arts are an economic engine
A town this size does not have a chamber of commerce—the Bishop Hill Arts Council is the economic engine that promotes tourism and the arts. It produces the visitor’s guide, manages the websites, and sponsors a series of annual events.
Bishop Hill is an event-driven town, with an event every other weekend, year-round. Our town square has a gorgeous gazebo, often encircled with straw bales and lawn chairs for a concert or historic re-enactment. The Commons hosts a concert almost every week, with bands from Sweden and Norway, as well as an array of local and national touring musicians. There is a writer’s retreat in January, the Swedish Stomp footrace in April, a quilt show in May, Midsommer in June, an antique fair in July, the Hummingbird Festival and Chautauqua in August, Jorbruksdagarna (agricultural fair) in September, ghost stories around the bonfire in October, and Julmarknad (Swedish Christmas market) in November and December—just to name the highlights.
Each business or museum organizes and hosts one or two of the events, but everyone pitches in to help set up, clean up, market, and promote the various celebrations. This partnership is great for the bed and breakfast, because it means we are full many weekends, with guests often booking the same room for the same event year after year.
The artists in town know these events bring foot traffic into their shops. It is because of these events—and these partnerships—that Bishop Hill is a great town to visit and wonderful place to live: a place where artists know there will be folks visiting their shops. (We actually have one vacant storefront with a cozy studio apartment if you know anyone looking for a second career!)
We also know these events help us garnish both regional and national attention, offering countless opportunities for fresh marketing. Yet we continue to reach out to our nearby neighbors as the perfect place for a local getaway, striving for that balance between quality of life for the locals and a tourist destination for those farther afield.
A place to land, a place to learn something new, to taste, to experience … this is what we all seek when we vacation. Bishop Hill is a town out of a fairy tale. As you walk the streets of this historic village, you see much of what the Swedish immigrants built more than 170 years ago.
Stepping out of the everyday and into something extraordinary where you can write your own story … this is the goal of every destination. We invite you to dig beneath the surface to reveal the buried treasures of our little town, be it history or natural splendor … Bishop Hill has both.
Tourism is changing from “come see“ to “come do.” Shopping has been and always will be a mainstay of tourism because there is something about our human nature that needs to hunt and gather. With more than a dozen unique shops filled with locally made crafts, Bishop Hill is a haven for shoppers.
We also have six museums for those who relish history, each telling a unique story, from the Swedish immigrants’ journey to the agricultural implements they used. Many shopkeepers are also gardeners so spring and summer flowers are picture postcard perfect. Our town square is lined with the most amazing sugar maple for fall color, and you could not imagine a more picturesque Christmas card setting than Bishop Hill with a light snowfall.
Beyond grazing through shops and museums, visitors are looking for an authentic experience. Bishop Hill has been serving up authenticity since 1846. Many of the craft shops now offer workshops so you can make or glaze a piece of pottery; learn quilting, rug making, or felting; build a brick; make maple syrup in the winter or sorghum in the fall. These are all hands-on experiences designed to nurture creativity and immerse you in our shared history.
Historic experience, resilience, and the coronavirus
It was actually my daughter, who has been working on the front lines of the current pandemic as a social worker in Kansas City, Mo., who highlighted what we already knew, “You have had zero cases in Bishop Hill, like you live in your own little bubble.”
I would ascribe this “bubble” to our Scandinavian roots. We were founded as a utopian community, and that vibe of looking out for your neighbors and making sacrifices for the common good is still prevalent. Just as the Scandinavian countries acted decisively to limit the spread of the disease, keeping their numbers low, we have been very conscientious about wearing masks and staying 6 feet away— not as a sacrifice, but as way of protecting our at-risk neighbors. And everything was closed down for two months. With 120 people and no tourism, it was easy to manage the impact. Also, Illinois was the first state to reopen after meeting all standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and recent numbers show we have greatly reduced the spread.
All our restaurants have outdoor seating, our summer events will be outdoors, and the arts council has had several fruitful conversations about rethinking how we host an event. By spreading out the elements of a festival all across town, we can limit the concentration of people. For example, last year, the Hummingbird Festival was hosted by and focused at the Bishop Hill Creative Commons. This year, the bird banding will be out in the orchard, and there will be informal talks near The Colony Store. The folks at the Poppy Barn will host a workshop on landscaping for hummingbirds, and hummingbird crafts will be on display all over town. We are rethinking how to more safely host an adventure.
The Twinflower Inn
The motto for our bed and breakfast is “Your Home Base for Adventure!” Beyond creating links with area golf courses and canoe rentals, organizing bird watching, planning weddings, and arranging craft workshops, our primary goal is to help you make memories. If you leave the Twinflower Inn with a story to tell, then you are also a partner in helping us sing the praises of this utopia on the prairie!
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.