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Tourism in Minnesota no longer just about going to the lake

Explore Minnesota Director John Edman gives a presentation on Minnesota tourism to members of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 2. Photo by Andrew VonBank.

“When I think of a vacation in Minnesota, I kind of imagine, like a really cold, dreary climate and a bunch of people who sound like they came out of ‘Fargo.’”

That’s what a man says in a video Explore Minnesota Tourism Director John Edman has been showing to House committees. The video includes interviews about travel in Minnesota with people on the street in other states.

“Ouch,” says Edman when the clip ends.

That was an inspiring video,” was the sarcastic response of Committee Chair Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) at a House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee hearing held Monday at St. Paul’s RiverCentre, where Explore Minnesota is hosting its annual tourism conference.

But Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), sponsor of HF434, a bill to boost Explore Minnesota’s funding, wasn’t ruffled by the video: “I did come out of Fargo, so I’m OK with that.”

To Edman, those person-on-the-street interviews suggest a direction for Explore Minnesota. “We don’t have a product problem,” he says. “We have an awareness problem.”

Edman’s agency, formerly a division of the Department of Employment and Economic Development and now an independent department of state government with a 24-member advisory council, got a big boost in the last biennium to promote Minnesota as a place to visit and travel. The Dayton administration, the tourism industry and the Legislature were on the same page on raising the budget for Explore Minnesota by 67 percent – its biggest increase ever.

Exploring new options

Explore Minnesota is using the new money to expand its marketing efforts to new geographic areas and in new media. The new areas — Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Saskatchewan — form a crescent to the west and south of Explore Minnesota’s core of existing media markets in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and southern Manitoba.

The agency often partners with other organizations, from co-op ads with local chambers in Minnesota to matching funds from Brand USA, an organization Edman serves as a board member, that uses federal dollars to attract international visitors who Edman says spend more and stay longer.

The new media range from outdoor advertising, including a building wrap in Denver, to mobile devices and social media such as Twitter and Instagram. The current ad campaign, launched last year and created by Minneapolis ad agency Colle + McVoy, goes by a hashtag — #onlyinmn — which has already been used more than 65,000 times.

Explore Minnesota's new logo

In some cases, traditional media and new media combine, as with digital billboards that display photos people have posted online using the #onlyinmn hashtag. (See Explore Minnesota’s #onlyinmn TV ad campaign and social hub for #onlyinmn posts and photos.)

At the Jan. 27 hearing of the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee, Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) told Edman she was impressed by the number of Explore Minnesota ads she has seen online and on social media and said #onlyinmn is a “wonderful campaign.”

It’s been a big change from the department’s lean years, according to Doug Killian, senior director of international communications at the Mall of America and co-chair of the Minnesota Tourism Growth Coalition, an industry group.

Testifying before Garofalo’s committee, he recalled watching the state’s tourism budget shrink. “For those of us who work in the trenches every day, it was very discouraging,” Killian said, especially with Montana, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota “bombarding us with advertising and print and television.” Minnesota’s national rank in traveler spending dropped from 25th to 33rd. The feeling in the industry was, “We’ve got to do something about this,” Killian said.

Competing for tourist dollars

Now, according to Edman, Minnesota has risen back to the middle of the pack in traveler spending, to about 22nd nationally. “We have grown somewhat over time, but still the competition is intense,” he said, referring to a chart showing Minnesota’s tourism budget, despite the recent uptick, still dwarfed by other states’ spending.

In Killian’s estimation, “If we don’t continue that type of investment and marketing, we’re going to slip back.”

But there isn’t the same consensus on increasing Explore Minnesota’s budget as there was two years ago. Dayton and Edman have proposed maintaining the current annual budget of $13.88 million (plus a slight increase for salaries) in the next biennium.

Arguing for another increase, by about 36 percent to nearly $19 million annually in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, is the Minnesota Tourism Growth Coalition, along with legislators like Fabian and Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), who is sponsoring SF22, the companion bill to Fabian’s.

“It’s very, very critical for our industry and a huge step forward,” Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Saint Paul and Minnesota Tourism Growth Coalition co-chair, said of Minnesota’s increased investment in tourism. “Our industry is fueled by promotion. That’s what makes us tick. Additional funding has gotten us into the ballgame.”

Maintaining current funding would allow Explore Minnesota to consolidate and concentrate on its wider geographic reach, Edman said, noting that the 8:1 return on public investment Explore Minnesota traditionally touts is more like 6:1 in new markets. An increase could see geographic expansion into what Explore Minnesota Senior Brand Strategist Leann Kispert calls further “concentric circles” of media markets, with an eye to places such as Detroit and St. Louis.

Steve Markuson, a former Explore Minnesota director who chairs the Metro Tourism Committee and represents the north metro’s Twin Cities Gateway convention and visitors bureau, told the job growth committee, “Tourism in Minnesota is no longer just going to the lake and the cabin up north. It clearly has a statewide impact. The one big thing we heard in the run-up to this year’s election was the gap between rural and metro. Tourism is one of the industries that really helps to fill that gap and to make it even.

“How many industries generate $35 million a day, impact all 87 counties, and employ 250,000 people? Not many. Tourism does.”

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