For Lori Syverson, they're the visitors Edina lost.
Syverson, president of the Edina Chamber of Commerce, spent over an hour on the phone with a woman who was arranging a family reunion in Edina for more than 60 people. Trying to help coordinate days of activities, Syverson scoured the Internet and referred the woman to some Web pages.
"But she was overwhelmed; she had to look into things on her own, and it was not an easy process," Syverson said. "We lost them to Bloomington, where the Bloomington visitor's bureau had everything in a nice, neat package all wrapped up in a bow."
It's one of the reasons why Edina recently approved a 3 percent lodging tax on its two hotels to fund Explore Edina, a visitors bureau that will focus on bringing in and helping visitors. About 110 Minnesota cities have similar groups that try to capture some of the $12.5 billion that tourism brings to the state each year.
Edina is following the example of St. Louis Park, which set up Discover St. Louis Park three years ago. John Basill, CEO and president, estimates the group brought St. Louis Park at least $1 million in business last year.
Basill welcomes Explore Edina and says cities aren't in cutthroat competition. If St. Louis Park doesn't have enough hotel or event space on a certain weekend, he refers callers to other cities.
"I call it co-petition," he said. "Right now it's very healthy, and the more efforts we have to capture travel and tourism dollars in the Twin Cities vs. Chicago or Kansas City … the better off St. Louis Park will be, and the better off the state will be."
But it was the sting of lost business that led Edina's Chamber of Commerce to urge the City Council to set up a visitor's bureau. While the Internet makes information available at the tap of a finger, Syverson said people who don't know the area want a one-stop information shop.
"We were getting 12 to 15 calls a week from individuals who were looking for things to do and places to stay," she said. "We didn't have anything to offer them. We'd refer them to the city, and the city would refer them back to us."
St. Louis Park led the way
Edina was impressed with Discover St. Louis Park, which is funded by the $700,000 a year it draws from a 3 percent lodging tax on six hotels. Basill is the group's homegrown leader, having lived in St. Louis Park since 1991.
"I was passionate about wanting to market this city," he said.
In addition to a deep website, Discover St. Louis Park has a 74-page city guide that it sends to people who call and gives away at the 14 trade shows Basill attends each year. It has a meeting and event planning guide that includes unconventional locations like an art studio and a winery. Once a year, the group offers a bus tour for people who want to scope out the city as a meeting site.
Basill said St. Louis Park targets trade shows for corporate groups, sports organizations that run tournaments and bus tour companies that pass through the Twin Cities. Over three years, he said, 367 groups were identified as interested in the city, and in the past year 16,000 leisure travelers explored the group's website or requested a visitor's guide.
"We're a good midsize event destination," Basill said.
A medical software company from Wisconsin is bringing a couple of hundred people to St. Louis Park for its annual customer conference, something Basill says will bring about $60,000 to the community. This winter, the city hosted an orthodox Christian basketball tournament that attracted 600 people from around the Midwest.
"We needed five courts … and partnered with the school district on that, and had hotel partners that had rooms for big dinners," Basill said.
Spreading the word
Cities market not only themselves but their neighbors. St. Louis Park advertises its proximity to Minneapolis theaters and connections to trails that reach Minneapolis lakes.
In Edina, Syverson thinks her city will attract retail, medical and leisure travelers, including those who are coming to shop at the Mall of America.
The Edina chamber has gotten calls from travelers who say they've heard about shopping in Edina but aren't quite sure where to go, she said. She said Edina can market four types of shopping: high-end fashion at the Galleria, boutiques around 50th and France, Southdale and the stores around Centennial Lakes.
When the Edina chamber got a call from four Rochester women who go shopping twice a year at the Mall of America but wanted to expand their trip to Edina, Syverson connected them with an Edina hotel and found places for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a wine break and even a massage.
"She called me afterward and thanked me," Syverson said. "But now that we will have a staff and a repository of information, it will be so much easier."
Discover St. Louis Park ran ads during TV broadcasts of Twins games in outstate Minnesota and in the Dakotas and found that traffic on the Discover website spiked. Syverson said up to 30 percent of travelers in Minnesota are repeat visitors who come to the Cities for a Twins game or to visit the big mall in Bloomington.
"They might come one time and stay in St. Louis Park, then look at Edina the next time," she said. "It's a very cooperative atmosphere. I can see Edina mentioning Canterbury Park, or Valleyfair, or [St. Louis Park's] West End."
Edina's lodging tax is expected to raise about $390,000 in its first full year. Syverson said Explore Edina should be up and running by fall.