Amana Colonies adapting, evolving to recoup losses

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AMANA — For many years in the mid-20th century, the Amana Colonies were the No. 1 tourism destination in Iowa.

Visitors came to the rolling farmland and villages in Iowa County to eat German food, shop for locally produced items and clothing and buy Amana appliances and heirloom-quality furniture made by skilled craftsmen.

Over the last decade, annual sales tax revenue began to fall from $35.4 million in 2000 to $26.8 million in 2006 as fewer people bought large items of furniture and other communities, like Dubuque, lured tourists with new hotels, indoor water parks, museums and other attractions.

The Amana Colonies also has lost three well-known restaurants, The Amana Barn, The Brick Haus and Zuber’s, since late 2003. On the plus side, the Rose & Thorn Public House in Middle Amana offers a non-German dining alternative and plays host to live performers on weekends.

Bill Leichsenring, second-generation owner and president of the Ox Yoke Inn restaurants in Amana, believes the Amana Colonies became too complacent and need to change.

“When I walk through the dining room and ask customers about their experience, I hear a lot of ‘How come most of these businesses aren’t open after 5 o’clock?’ We’ve got to listen to our customers and respond to their needs,” Leichsenring said. “We have a whole new generation out there that wants something different from my folks and my grandparents wanted, and in some respects, what I wanted.”

John Peterson, president and chief executive officer of the Amana Society, agreed that the number of visitors is down from the “heyday” of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“We have competition from the greater mobility of people,” Peterson said. “They go to Colorado to ski and Cancun for spring break. They don’t necessarily have to come to Amana, but they still come here and the numbers in the last few years have held up relatively well.”

Changing spending habits

Over the last several years, Peterson said the size of large appliance and furniture purchases began to show a noticeable decline.

“The Amana General Store last year had the best year in its history, so it depends on what you have for people to buy,” Peterson said. “They will spend $20 for food, $10 or $15 on something from the General Store, but they may not spend $2,000 at the Amana Furniture & Clock Shop.”

Peterson said that prompted the introduction of a line of “counter” items that can be personalized with laser etching.

“We’re making things like clocks, jewelry boxes, mirrors and plaques that can be produced in advance, personalized and taken home,” he said. “Last year, what we call ‘small counter items’ were the largest seller. We don’t get as much per unit, but we make it up in volume.”

Bruce Trumpold, manager of the Amana Furniture & Clock Shop in Amana, said the business employs eight craftsmen, down from 15 to 16 when there was greater demand for furniture and grandfather clocks. Trumpold said greater efficiency has enabled a smaller number of craftsmen to produce a higher volume of product.

“Furniture is still very important to us,” Trumpold said. “We just found another area where we can serve customers better who come into our store. Amana furniture, Amana clocks and custom Amana furniture are still a big part of what we do.”

The Amana Furniture & Clock Shop has a website that offers its products to a worldwide audience. The shop also uses Facebook to reach a younger and broader demographic of shopper.

Targeting next generation

Peterson said the Amana Society has taken other steps to bring the next generation of tourists and shoppers to the colonies.

“Some of the best Octoberfests that we’ve ever had occurred over the last two years,” he said. “We’re looking at other kinds of one-day or weekend events that we can offer, including more events at the RV park. We brought back the Cajun festival last year after a couple of years of absence and it was very successful.

“Some of our merchants are doing things on their own. Millstream Brewery is having ‘Bike and Stop by for a Beer Days.’

“We encourage it because when people are doing that, they might stop in another shop or dine in one of our restaurants.”

Peterson said the Amana Society also is selling buildings that can be put to a better use by encouraging the development of new businesses.

“We moved the Christmas Shop merchandise into the Amana General Store and sold the building to Jenise and Ithiel Catiri, who have operated Catiri’s Art Oasis in Amana for about a decade,” Peterson said. “Businesses that no longer appeal to people coming here will go out of business and new people will come in and offer what people are looking for.

“We’re trying to look not only at who comes here, but who do we want to come here and what can we do to attract them.”

Clientele, needs change

Jenise Catiri said she has seen Amana’s clientele change since they opened their studio in 2001.

“When we first came to town, it seemed like there was a lot of tour buses,” Catiri said. “We still have that, but Amana has been evolving. We have a lot more to offer in terms of modern conveniences like a good cappuccino shop and the quality of life here.

“It’s really a good place to create. Each year, we invite artists to come to our studio and paint during our Plein Air event over the Labor Day weekend.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see artists painting and appreciating the atmosphere in Amana.”

Leichsenring, who also is president of the Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Amana Colonies do a good job offering an authentic historical experience for tourists, but he believes more is needed to attract a new generation.

“What we lack is something for families and children, and we need a flagged motel here,” he said. “The Amana Colonies Golf Course needs a flagged hotel and we need that to happen very soon. We have wonderful small bed-and-breakfasts and independent hotels, but we need something that’s on the reservation network radar.”

Trumpold, the third generation of his family to work in the Amana Furniture Shop, is optimistic that weekend festivals, new businesses and new lines of merchandise will attract the next generation of Amana tourists.

“While we’re still building the same quality, what we’re building has changed. Our core values will not change,” he said. “I think you will see that in Amana in general.

“You will see new artisans, galleries and crafts that weren’t here 10 years ago.”

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