When open spaces, swaths of farmland, miles of riverfront and cozy communities are your region’s strongest attractions, it’s easy to define what’s special for visitors and new businesses – as leaders in McHenry County are discovering.
A rebrand of a company doesn’t always attract attention, unless an entire city – or in this case, county – is behind it.
Visit McHenry County, the former name of McHenry County’s convention and visitors bureau, officially became Naturally McHenry County in January. The new brand has been embraced by a broad scope of the region it serves.
With more than 310,000 residents and 30 municipalities, McHenry County is the sixth-largest county in Illinois, housing a unique spread of big-city amenities, open spaces, niche shopping and agritourism.
The new name, which is the culmination of a joint effort between the convention and visitors bureau, McHenry County Government and the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC), was chosen for its ability to encapsulate the sentiments of residents and business owners toward the community.
“‘Naturally McHenry County’ – that’s what we are. Natural,” says Wendy Richardson, co-owner of Richardson Farm in Spring Grove and board member of Naturally McHenry County. “You can take it either way. Naturally McHenry County, where else would you go? And we’re all about nature and natural things, so it fits right in.”
“I love it,” agrees Zak Dolezal, chef and owner of Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake. “I think it brings the trend of healthy; it feels like a healthy word. And nature – we have a lot to offer in the outdoors aspect, so it makes it sound like it’s a healthy county. It’s clean and all that goes with it, so I like the name selection.”
Naturally McHenry County launched a new website in July to complete its full transformation, though the group adopted its new logo long ago.
The new name is a breath of fresh air for a county that is embracing its roots while continuing to grow.
“The thing that’s really cool about McHenry County is the wide-open spaces that weave together all of the wonderful places we offer,” says Jaki Berggren, president and CEO of Naturally McHenry County. “You have room to breathe out here. You have very easy access to Chicago and Milwaukee, and the big-city amenities are still prevalent here, but you can live in an area where there’s a little more space, less concrete. It’s an inviting place to raise a family.”
The Process of a Rebrand
In 2005, the McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau was formed to create economic growth and promote the region as a destination for visitors.
“We’ve always been a county that people drive through,” says Berggren. “Before the convention and visitors bureau, people drove through on their way from Chicago to Lake Geneva or to other destinations. That was the goal of the visitors bureau: to market, promote and tell the story of McHenry County and the reasons you might not want to just drive through, but stop and stay for a while.”
Technically, the legal name of the tourism entity, nowadays considered a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), remains McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau, even though it spent the last 12 years known as Visit McHenry County, Berggren says.
But even that title didn’t sit right with those whose job it is to promote the county.
In 2014, Berggren, Pam Cumpata and Tammy Townsend-Denny, who at the time worked as president of the MCEDC and marketing manager of Visit McHenry County respectively, started talking about the possibility of rebranding not just the tourism entity, but the county as a whole.
The idea fizzled out that year, but the seed was planted, Berggren says.
It was in 2019 that work really began.
“From the very beginning, I wanted to go away from the Visit McHenry County name,” says Berggren. “First of all, there are a lot of bureaus that use the words ‘visit,’ ‘discover,’ ‘explore,’ ‘enjoy.’ Additionally, I felt like with ‘visit,’ a lot of people who live here would look at this organization and think, ‘This isn’t an organization for me.’ But as a county-wide organization, we promote the entire county. Crystal Lake doesn’t care if visitors are coming from Woodstock or McHenry or Naperville or Schaumburg or Chicago. We want to make sure our residents know that they can spend time and enjoy the area they live in.”
With that in mind, Visit McHenry County and its financial partner, MCEDC, hired a marketing firm to create focus groups and interview people in McHenry County. The idea was to establish data and insights from those who live and work in the county.
In total, roughly 200 citizens and 40 institutions were questioned, says Jim McConoughey, president and CEO of the MCEDC and chairman of the DMO’s board of directors.
Then, COVID hit in 2020, and the rebrand project was put on hold. While Visit McHenry County and the MCEDC split fees, state grant money was funding the rebrand. Once Illinoisians were issued a stay-at-home order by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, tourism was effectively halted and that grant money, which was supposed to be used to promote the county to areas at least 50 miles away, was rescinded.
“We pivoted to support our local businesses,” Berggren recalls. “We promoted local businesses to our local people because we knew we needed to keep them viable. We knew a lot of our businesses potentially could have not made it through the pandemic.”
As Pritzker’s strict quarantines subsided, Berggren revisited the rebrand idea, asking if the McHenry County government would be willing to help the project financially. The answer was yes.
By the summer of 2021, Visit McHenry County, the MCEDC and McHenry County government were in the full throes of choosing a new logo, a new tagline and a new name for the tourism entity, with McDaniels Marketing from Pekin, Ill., at the helm.
“Naturally McHenry County” was the clear winner, along with the tagline, “Wonderful places. Wide-open spaces.” In January 2022, the rebrand rolled out.
Despite the delay it caused, the pandemic wound up being a helpful precursor to the rebrand.
“COVID helped draw attention to the fact that we have a tourism industry that is flourishing here, and we have an organization that is committed to that,” Berggren says. “Having the rebrand on the heels of the pandemic was perfect timing.”
The Proof is in the Packaging
One of the directives of the rebrand was to provide a clear-cut, visual symbol to anyone visiting the Naturally McHenry County website. The easiest way to accomplish that was to adopt a common logo.
Three organizations now utilize the same “McH” stylized letters to define McHenry County, but different colors are used for each.
“Our hope is that by doing that, it makes our destination one cohesive unit,” says Berggren. “It sets up a little more for people to recognize us as a destination.”
Peter Austin, county administrator of McHenry County, hopes more local institutions will utilize the common logo.
“I think there is an opportunity for more organizations in the county, like the conservation district, not to replace their brand but to augment it with Naturally McHenry County, to further connect all of the governing bodies in the county,” says Austin. “I think there’s an opportunity for the Village of Lake in the Hills, for example, to have the McH on some of their materials.”
Some individual municipalities already are onboard.
The City of McHenry plans to incorporate the Naturally McHenry County logo and slogan on its city and economic development websites to show support for and provide a direct link to the DMO, says Dorothy Wolf, economic development coordinator for the City of McHenry.
“Naturally McHenry County” directly fits in with what the municipality is trying to accomplish with its own economic development,” she says.
“We, as a city, are trying to rebrand ourselves,” Wolf says. “We’ve discussed using the Fox River, which flows right through our downtown, and our riverwalk as assets for tourism. They create the idea of a destination and allow us to pull in the natural aspects of the area as well.”
One of the most important jobs of McHenry County’s DMO is to be the connecting piece between the community’s businesses.
“Sometimes business owners are so focused on their own entity that they miss opportunities that could be shared with similar organizations,” says Berggren.
“We can say to all breweries, ‘Let’s get together and get some advertising out,’” Berggren adds. “We’ve been collaborating, and this fall, we’re going to launch a social media/digital advertising campaign of our craft beverage trail. Now, you have your customers from some of the breweries becoming customers of all breweries.
“We love to help the businesses partner, and once they come up with their synergistic plan, we help to promote that even further,” Berggren adds. “All of that has definitely increased since the new branding. It’s happening more with people reaching out to us to be the connector. They’re realizing that’s something we do.”
Wonderful Places. Wide-Open Spaces.
You can’t talk about Naturally McHenry County without discussing nature, and McHenry County has plenty of it.
The conservation district alone owns or manages 25,623 acres of open space, with 35 sites open to the public for various uses such as hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, camping and more.
Glacial Park, a 3,439-acre open space, is the most well-known, most-visited and most-photographed site, says Elizabeth Kessler, executive director of the conservation district and a board member of Naturally McHenry County. The park sees more than 64,000 visitors annually, according to the conservation district website.
“Our places in McHenry County are treasures,” says Kessler. “Our collective work over the past 50 years in protecting the best of the best and restoring our natural areas to ecological health provides not only health and sustainability for the plants and animals who live here, but the wild connects people with the outdoors.”
McHenry County Conservation District is just a slice of the county’s open space and doesn’t include municipal parks such as the 140-acre Veteran Acres Park managed by the Crystal Lake Park District, or Chain O’Lakes State Park, a 2,793-acre state park situated on the border of McHenry and Lake counties. These are popular sites for visitors and residents alike.
Of course, there are other outdoor spaces that are wildly popular, like Three Oaks Recreation Area, a reclaimed quarry in Crystal Lake that encourages fishing, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, sail boating, paddleboarding and even scuba diving. Part of Three Oaks includes a separate 32-acre cable wake park for wakeboarders to dive into.
While Kessler speaks from a conservationist’s perspective, she reflects a near-universal understanding of how the marketing organization’s new name and tagline prioritize outdoor spaces, whether recreationally or conservationally.
“Residents have long known the value of nature and the outdoors,” says Kessler. “Visitors have frequently visited our conservation areas because they know what we have here: unique species rarely found anywhere else, and we’ve protected them. They’re really rare gems. Naturally McHenry County showcases what’s authentic about McHenry County. It is our one-of-a-kind natural assets that make us unique and differentiate us from other tourism areas.”
Agritourism and Beyond
From a tourism standpoint, open spaces do more than draw people to isolated trails or bodies of water.
“When people go outdoors, what else are they doing while here?” asks Kessler. “They’re spending money to get here; picking up food for picnics; purchasing outdoor gear like bikes, camping tents and hiking shoes; visiting local shops and restaurants. We know it adds to the economy.”
Businesses have been picking up on the importance of connecting to nature, too, she says. Many are naming or rebranding themselves to align with assets from the natural world, like Rush Creek Distilling in Harvard or Crystal Lake Brewery.
“Restaurants are located near access points to downtown trails, to places for renting of canoes and kayaks,” Kessler says. “You see people making these connections.”
As of 2020, McHenry County has 234,211 acres of farmland and, in recent years, many farms have been leaning into the agritourism business more heavily, with different branches of the county government fully supporting them along the way.
“Every week, we try to augment or highlight agritourism, just to emphasize how important it is to travel to McHenry County and explore the natural way of life,” says Alicia Schueller, communications and project manager for McHenry County government.
“As our society has grown farther and farther away from where our food comes from, there’s a desire to show kids that it doesn’t just come from a grocery store shelf,” agrees Berggren. “Farmers are realizing, ‘If I’m willing to open my farm for people to visit, people want to do that.’”
There are almost 50 farms and farmers markets in the county, and when agritourism does well, so do other local businesses.
“We have some other business owners in town who will ask, ‘When is your corn maze opening?’ Because they know their business is going to improve,” says Wendy Richardson, whose family farm is a major attraction during the fall, as well as during the farm’s tulip fest each spring. “The restaurants ask so they have staff ready. That’s cool to see the trickle-down effect. I love that.”
So many farms have recently expanded their agritourism businesses that the county government has stepped in to help. Richardson Farm, for example, began a Tulip Festival two years ago that now features 600,000 flowers.
“It’s exploding, and we’re very happy that it’s growing,” says Scott Hartman, deputy county administrator for McHenry County and a member of the executive committee for Naturally McHenry County. “It is an important part of the culture of McHenry County, and it’s recognized by the county not only in strategic plans but also in recent revisions to zoning ordinances. The Unified Development Code has been written to ensure that agritourism continues to be an important part of our community.”
If you take into consideration all of the things that are “naturally” McHenry County – agritourism and outdoor recreation, of course – but also the historical downtowns of some of the smaller communities, local theater at Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake, the largest railway museum in the country in Union, farm-to-table dining across the county, and so much more, it’s hard to believe McHenry County was ever a “drive-through county.”
“My family has run Duke’s in Crystal Lake since 1995, before Crystal Lake was what it is today,” says Zak Dolezal. “I’ve seen it grow and change. Through all those changes, I think the community, everybody, had to come together to make it beautiful and work. I see it mostly in Crystal Lake because that’s where I live and work, but I look for more things to do with my kids within the county, some different adventures to go on. I didn’t even realize how much the county had to offer.”