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Rural connectivity ‘critical’ to drawing guests to new Amana hotel

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 10:54 PM CDT
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AMANA, Iowa (KCRG) - The last 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have reaffirmed the importance of internet access, with more Iowans and Americans both working and learning from home.

But in a part of eastern Iowa not known for having the most modern touch, rural broadband is critical for tourism as well.

The Amana Colonies harken back to an earlier time, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors in a typical year, and with them, millions of dollars in revenue.

“People come here. They know there’s something a little bit different,” said Jeff Popenhagen, chief revenue officer and marketing director for the Amana Society. “Maybe they’re not in as big of a rush, but they want to be connected.”

Through their phones, tablets, and laptops, they likely wanted to be connected to life outside the Amanas, especially if they’re staying in the area for more than a day at a place like Hotel Millwright, which opened last fall.

Popenhagen said to draw first-time visitors to book a stay at the hotel, high-speed internet is a must.

“People come out here, and they expect what they get at home,” he said.

But in a historically preserved building, part of which dates back to the 1850s, installing underground fiber to provide internet access can be a delicate undertaking.

“Some of our technicians had to get into crawl spaces,” explained Shane Von Holten, marketing manager for South Slope Cooperative Communications, out of North Liberty. “They had to go through walls that were sometimes three foot in depth. We have specialty drill bits just for that type of situation.”

South Slope installed the hotel’s fiber, which Von Holten said is needed for the experience Hotel Millwright wants to provide.

Other network options, such as DSL, aren’t as fast or reliable, and in some rural areas, they may not even be possible.

But fiber will become a possibility for more people who live and work in Iowa in the future. On Monday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill to appropriate $100 million to rural connectivity, having outlined it as one of her priorities for this year’s legislative session.

“I mean, it’s absolutely future-proof technology, and that’s why there’s such a push on both the state level and the national level to make sure that all Americans have access to it. It’s absolutely necessary,” Von Holten said.

It became even more of a necessity for a hotel operating in a pandemic, becoming more reliant on technology.

“Just like every other retail and hospitality business out there, QR codes, apps, contactless items — all of that stuff has just been critical for us,” Popenhagen said.

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