NEW ULM, MINN. - On a recent Wednesday, 20 or so senior citizens from nearby Arlington and Gaylord toured the Schell's brewery, got a taste of the family brewer's dark stout and stayed in town for a lunch of bratwurst, sauerkraut and German potato salad.
For years, that's been a tourism staple for the New Ulm economy.
But now the home of "Hermann the German'' wants to attract a younger, more affluent cast of tourists. Schell's, the state's oldest brewery, is looking for a similar demographic to buy Schell's products beyond the brewer's traditional southern Minnesota base.
As a result, both the town and the brewer have recently hired Minneapolis ad agencies to assist them in the increasingly competitive worlds of local tourism and craft brewing. In an environment where competition for attention is keen, the decision by Schell's and the city to seek outside help is understandable.
"More and more, it's important to get into the fray," said Anna Thill, president of the Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If you're not doing it, you're being left behind."
More than 100 communities in Minnesota have visitors bureaus, said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism arm. "But we're not alone," Edman said of tourism activities elsewhere in the Midwest.
From the "Door County Doors" program in eastern Wisconsin to "The Range" campaign for Minnesota's Iron Range cities to South Dakota's "Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes" promotion, competition is keen for the discretionary dollars that consumers seem more willing to spend as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession.
"People are traveling closer to home now," Edman said. ''Minnesota is more of a driving destination than Florida, for instance. People are discovering things in their own back yards."
Ingrid Schneider, director of the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center, acknowledges that lesser-known communities face challenges when competing with known entities like the North Shore or the Black Hills. But lacking that familiarity with tourists is also an opportunity, she said.
"Lesser-known communities represent something different. They're not as crowded. They appeal to people seeking a more authentic experience," Schneider said. "And there's the whole locally owned movement. People are seeking unique local businesses and foods. Smaller communities can be appealing."
The New Ulm Convention and Visitors Bureau engaged the full-service marketing agency Haberman on a "modest" budget to generate interest in the town of 13,500 with a mostly digital advertising campaign that has yet to begin.
"There are so many good, hidden stories here," said bureau chairman Ruth Wellman. "New Ulm is the most German city in America, and we want to reflect that."
The 152-year-old Schell's brewery bolsters that image.
"There are a lot of new entrants and a lot of new choices," said Schell's CEO Ted Marti, the fifth generation to run the brewery. "We wanted to make sure that we didn't get forgotten."
Schell's hired the advertising and public relations firm Padilla Spear Beardsley for an undisclosed amount to raise its visibility, the first phase of which is a billboard campaign in the Twin Cities that hails life's little victories, such as a fixed pipe leak using duct tape with the phrase "Celebrate" and a picture of a bottle of Schell's beer.
Later this summer, Schell's products will make appearances at Twin Cities events such as the Uptown Art Fair and the Basilica Block Party.
In the beer world, people are starting to embrace brews made in their own back yards like Summit, Surly and Schell's. The key is to engage the younger generations.
"Boomers tend to know the brand and love the brand," Padilla's Tom Jollie said of Schell's. "But the younger craft beer drinkers don't have that history. Schell's has been very New Ulm-centric. We want Schell's to be in locations where it will be seen by a younger demographic."
Jollie jokes that Schell's was a craft beer before small production beers were called craft beers. Schell's, which also produces Grain Belt and Nordeast beers, counts more than a dozen different brews, many of them seasonal, in its beer family.
"They haven't been very visible in the Twin Cities and we're going to help them think a little more metro," said Jollie.
Jason Alvey, owner of the Four Firkins, a specialty craft beer store in St. Louis Park, said Schell's has a loyal following among everyday beer drinkers and hard-core enthusiasts. He said the brewer's limited edition Stag series of brews routinely sells out the first weekend they are available.
"Schell's is nowhere near Sam Adams [in terms of sales and production], but they more than hold their own," Alvey said. "These guys know what they're doing."
From the peacock-populated, well-tended grounds that make up the Schell's brewery to the 102-foot statue of Hermann the German standing majestically on a hill overlooking the lush Minnesota River valley, New Ulm is an iconic Minnesota city that is the birthplace of the likes of Hollywood's Tippi Hedren (who moved away at an early age) and All-Star major league baseball catcher Terry Steinbach.
With its broad clean streets, well-tended yards and 19th-century homes, New Ulm for decades has celebrated its German heritage with a summer festival now known as Bavarian Blast but previously known as Heritage Fest and, before that, Polka Days.
The main business district, where parking is free, features a free-standing glockenspiel, stores that sell cuckoo clocks and authentic German restaurants like Veigel's Kaiserhoff.
Later this summer New Ulm will mark the anniversary of a difficult period in the city's history -- the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which included numerous casualties on both sides.
"Our focus is on storytelling," said Haberman's Brian Wachtler. "We're going to create a campaign that is authentic and relevant to the audience and invite them into the conversation."
Haberman, an agency known for its cause marketing as well as its storytelling, plans to draw attention to New Ulm with Facebook postings, banner ads and other digital channels. With Haberman at the advertising wheel, the visitor's bureau hopes to lure day-trippers from the Twin Cities or younger couples out to explore new parts of the state. The city could even become a destination for bachelorette or wedding parties.
"We have to be thinking ahead and be proactive," said Wellman. "Our slogan is 'Come see what's brewing.' But it's not all just about brewing."
David Phelps • 612-673-7269