Minnesota tourism seeks image makeover

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2011 - 11:19 PM

Many Americans see Minnesota as stodgy and cold. Tourists don't know about the fun stuff, survey says.

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Wanda King helps plow a neighbor's sidewalk with her snow blower on Dec. 12, 2010, in Minneapolis.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Minnesota's image is buried in more than just snow, a new study shows.

The North Star State is boring. Unsophisticated. Downright old-fashioned.

And that assessment comes from residents in neighboring Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska. In places farther away such as Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the perception gets even worse.

"We think we're fun and exciting. They think we're dullsville," said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, the group that funded the study.

Changing Americans' attitudes about Minnesota won't be easy. Only 22 percent said they would consider traveling to Minnesota in the next two years, according to the national survey of 844 people. Meanwhile, only 33 percent believed the state had a growing economy with great job opportunities.

One of the first steps is to establish a clear marketing message for the North Star State.

On license plates, Minnesota is known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." But to tourists, it's marketed as "Explore Minnesota." To companies looking to do business here, the message is "Positively Minnesota."

"When you're talking in fragmented language, your voice doesn't come through as loud," Edman said. "When we do start speaking with one voice with a common approach, then our voice becomes much louder."

Tourism experts say the challenge is to differentiate Minnesota from competing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, while coming up with a compelling message that will recruit potential businesses and employees. The state's $11 billion tourism industry employs about 240,000 people, and if more tourists were to pick Minnesota, that could mean more jobs.

Minnesota tourism officials said the results will help them focus on which aspects of the state they should promote.

"At times, Minnesota is a well-kept secret, but it shouldn't be," said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota. The study "keeps everyone from thinking about resting on our laurels," McElroy said.

While the use of disparate catchphrases make it confusing for potential tourists, negative perceptions about the Minnesota's weather are what hurt the state most.

Thoughts of blizzards and subzero temperatures make it difficult to recruit potential employees and businesses.

Some even think many Minnesotans have Fargo accents and that, outside of Chicago, the rest of the Midwest is a big farm, said Frank Jaskulke, member services director for the trade group LifeScience Alley. But once those people get to know the state, they change their minds, he said.

"Minnesota is the hardest state to recruit people to," Jaskulke said. "It's even harder to recruit people out of."

The survey's results will be discussed Tuesday at the governor's Jobs Summit. Explore Minnesota has formed a task force of people from state departments, tourism industry groups and businesses.

It's unclear whether Explore Minnesota will be successful in re-branding the state, but it has looked at its neighbors' marketing campaigns -- like Pure Michigan -- to turn around Minnesota's image.

For example, in 2009, Michigan had a $12.2 million media budget and its summer campaign brought in nearly 2 million additional trips to Michigan, according to a report funded by the U.S. Travel Association

Still, Minnesota needs more marketing dollars, but that's difficult to raise with a challenged state budget, Edman said. Explore Minnesota's budget is $8.3 million this year and ranked 31st in the nation. The group, which relies on money from the state's general fund, is looking to partner with the private sector to shore up its budget.

"We can't put our hand out for general fund dollars because they aren't there," Edman said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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