Litchfield's Marching Dragons stepped off into a new marching band season with their first parade of the year Sunday in Albertville.
It was the start of a busy week for the Marching Dragons, who are set to perform at six parades in seven days. But after missing all of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, band members and director David Ceasar were up for the activity.
The marching band gave supporters a preview of this summer's show, named "Eternal Egypt," during its annual Sneak Peak performance Thursday on 10th Street in front of Litchfield High School. That performance was during band camp, which included two and a half days of intensive marching and musical technique training Thursday through Saturday.
The band was to perform at Monday at Benson, then return home for the Litchfield Parade of Bands Tuesday, followed by the Montevideo Band Festival today, Paynesville parade Thursday, Montevideo's Fiesta Days parade Saturday, and Sunday at Hutchinson's Water Carnival parade.
A one-year pandemic hiatus and a change in major sponsor might have been enough to end Litchfield’s family-friendly outdoor music festival.
But a small group of volunteers decided they couldn’t let that happen.
So the rebranded Songs of Summer Festival — with the tag line “Music brings people together in Harmony” — will go on Saturday, Aug. 14. The festival, featuring three musical acts, will run from 2 to 10 p.m. Along with the established bands, the festival will begin with a Songs of Summer talent show, and there will be games and food vendors available throughout the day.
“We started with nothing, you know, but I think we’ve done really well with the very tiny budget that we’ve had,” said Cathy Michaud, a Songs of Summer board member who handles marketing.
After three years as the primary sponsor of the then-named Summer Bash, Thrivent opted not to continue the sponsorship after the 2020 pandemic cancellation. That left a few people with close associations to the “Bash” with a decision to make, according to Monica Schreiber, a Songs of Summer Festival board member.
Schreiber received the call from Greg Armstrong of The Fabulous Armadillos, the band who had headlined the Summer Bash in its three years of existence.
“Greg called one day and said … ‘What would you think of picking it up?’” said Schreiber, who operates the local Gentz Financial Services office. “And I said, ‘Well, that would be great if I can keep getting a great group of people together that can help me, because I can’t do it myself.’”
She and Michaud soon pulled together a seven-member board of directors, many of whom also had volunteered with the Summer Bash.
“We kind of kicked it around, (asking each other) ‘Do you think we can? Or do you think we can’t?’” said Schreiber, who helped organize the Summer Bash during its three-year run. “And we just said, ‘We think we can.’”
Their belief in the festival was rewarded.
“We’ve had a lot of great response,” Michaud said, to fundraising efforts for the festival. “A lot of businesses have stepped up. So, with the money that’s been committed, services that have been donated, we are slowly putting this together. And I think it’s exciting.”
Exciting beyond the music and family fun, Michaud said, because what the festival does for nonprofit groups in the area. Donations from this year’s festival — no admission will be charged — will go to five nonprofits chosen from a group of applicants, as will proceeds from a raffle. The five groups chosen were Lutheran Social Services, Litchfield Dragon Goal Line Club, Rise & Roam, Children’s Grief Connection and School of St. Philip. In addition, all the food vendors — Litchfield Rescue Squad, Knights of Columbus, Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato hockey, Litchfield Goal Line Club and Trinity Lutheran Church of Grove City’ — are nonprofit organizations that will keep their own sales.
“The most special part about this event that we think makes it unique is how it’s a free event open to the public, that is offering a great day of bringing our community together, you know, in a family-friendly, fun aspect,” Schreiber said. “I mean, this is really unique.
“And then to know it’s such a huge, wonderful fundraising component, or opportunity, for all these groups, it’s really neat,” Schreiber said.
People seeking lodging in Litchfield gained a new hotel option last week.
Though the building and its staff remained basically unchanged, the hotel on the east edge of town became a SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western.
In some ways, it was a quiet change. Unless travelers on U.S. Highway 12 East saw the sign change to SureStay Plus from AmericInn on Monday, or if they happened to call the reservation line, they might not have noticed.
But for the hotel’s owners, the switch to the SureStay Plus brand – and its Best Western affiliation – is monumental.
“Its an iconic name,” said Rod Lindquist, chief executive officer of Quad Hospitality LLC, owner of the hotel. “Best Western has continued to keep up with the market, with their product, instead of getting tired, instead of slipping. A lot of the people that aren’t in the hotel business that I run into notice that and say, ‘Boy the Best Westerns, there’s some really nice ones out there now,' but they also have been around 50 years ago, so it was an easy decision for me. And my partners … we talked about it and we got done doing all our analytics and other options and … what I think we’ve done is, we’ve improved our game.”
Lindquist said coming to Litchfield in the first place two decades ago was a logical decision, based on its demographics.
“It’s a county seat, has a good hospital and diverse employment base, you know, so many different manufacturers here,” Lindquist said. “I don’t want to say that it’s recession proof or not, but as an economy ebbs and flows, this town can kind of adapt to it. It’s a solid, solid town, and growing.”
Tom Busch, regional director of hotel development for Best Western Hotels & Resorts, agreed, saying that Litchfield’s proximity to the Twin Cities metro area and other smaller citIes, like St. Cloud and Willmar, along with its hospital and diverse industrial and agricultural businesses make it an attractive location for a hotel, even though it is on the smaller side population wise.
In some ways, that’s what makes the SureStay Plus in Litchfield a kind of test case for Best Western, said Busch, who visited the hotel last week as part of the brand transition.
Best Western has more than 4,000 hotels throughout the world, competing with the larger chains such as Holiday Inn, Hampton and Marriott in many markets. The Litchfield SureStay Plus by Best Western is the brand’s first in Minnesota, and with 38 rooms, it is on the smaller side.
Yet, Busch said, he expects success.
“It's exciting for us to be part of a town like this. We clearly benefit, but the only benefit is if my customer’s happy,” Busch said. “If they’re successful, they will be my spokespeople for the marketplace, their investors and other properties. It will help us, clearly, as we get distribution for the brand, but it also will depend on them being happy as investors, because they’ve got to satisfy the guests.”
Lindquist and his ownership group, ETC Enterprises, came to Litchfield around 1999, when a previous developer’s plans for a hotel on the east side of town didn’t work out. With the city’s extension of utilities to the east to accommodate the Walmart development, a new hotel in the area would be a good fit, Lindquist said. In June 2001, the AmericInn hotel opened.
Lindquist, who served as president of AmericInn International for several years, chose the brand as a good fit for the Litchfield market. He says it served him and the hotel well through the years, but as his contract term neared an end, he began looking at other options, and he saw the SureStay Plus by Best Western brand as a tremendous opportunity.
“In my opinion, and in ownership’s opinion, the Best Western is the better ticket today,” Lindquist said. “It’s as simple as that. It’s a better play. It’s a wise move, to me, without a doubt, it’s an upgrade.”
Best Western’s reservation system, used across its hotel portfolio, including the SureStay brand, is among the best in the world, Lindquist said, a factor that will give the Litchfield location higher visibility and – he believes – higher occupancy rates.
“It’s a good one to hitch our wagon to, and we’re lucky, you know, that we can have the Best Western flag here,” he said. “We could have a lot of other names out here, too, that I would never want to have on it.”
And while it’s a good move for the ownership group, Lindquist said, he believes it’s a good opportunity for SureStay Plus by Best Western.
“There’s a lot of this (AmericInn) brand out there from back in the day when I was president, that those (licensing terms) are sunsetting now,” Lindquist said. “So they’re going to be addressing the same thing we addressed. And so this is a good platform for SureStay to be in here, because this is a great opportunity for some other conversions out there.”
Some of that’s already happening, Busch said, with the opening of a SureStay Plus in Watertown, South Dakota and another from the SureStay collection scheduled to opening in July in Dickinson, North Dakota.
“So, it’s going to start dotting around, people will get familiar with the sign, the red sign with blue,” he said.
"As we grow the brand from the Southwest where it started, you tend to have moments where ... you have to have pioneers, people who trust the overall entity," Busch said. "They trust what we're doing. They like where the brand is taking the properties that they have."
Where rebranding a business usually requires a significant amount of marketing investment, attaching to the SureStay and Best Western names simplifies that concern to a great degree, Lindquist said. Because the one constant at the hotel – even through this name change – is the stability of staff.
“The reservation system will basically just add a whole bunch of new things into it,” Lindquist said of the transition to SureStay Plus and the Best Western system. “The existing customer base, our repeat customer base … we have the same great staff that we have had, that’s probably one of the best things about the success of this hotel is our staff, the great labor force, the people that have worked here ever since it opened. We’ve only had, I think, three managers since we opened. All that time, that consistency, stability, sustainability.”
Because people are generally creatures of habit, Busch said, when they travel, they prefer staying with a name they know and trust. That trust in Best Western, built on the company's long history in the nationwide lodging marketplace, creates a platform for growth that the Litchfield hotel did not have under its previous name.
“What Rod said is, there’s going to be a morphing of growth because you’re having new people come to town who might not have stayed – they might have gone to Willmar” to stay at the Best Western there, Busch added.
Best Western has certain requirements of SureStay Plus hotels that take on the brand, but most of those requirements were easily met by the Litchfield location before the transition, Lindquist and Busch said. Some upgrades, including “revamping” the breakfast area and the addition of a fitness center, are expected to be completed in early fall.
“We’ve done a lot of renovations already … because we are a proactive ownership group,” Lindquist said. “It’s going to be a busy summer with weddings and all kinds of things, so we’ll kind of take our time doing it, but we’ll have some changes here the regulars are gonna really like, and the new guests that come in through Best Western’s (reservation) website are just going to expect.”