States spending wads to woo tourists

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2014 - 11:02 AM

Amid an improving economy, state tourism offices from the Dakotas to Wisconsin are launching elaborate multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns to beckon regional visitors.

A summer spending spree is erupting in Minnesota and across the Midwest — for tourists.

Amid an improving economy, state tourism offices from the Dakotas to Wisconsin are launching elaborate multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns to beckon regional visitors.

Minnesota has rolled out television commercials featuring the Spam Museum and the Mall of America. North Dakota is deploying the voice of movie actor and Minot native Josh Duhamel in its barrage of ads. Wisconsin has even produced a spoof of the classic movie “Airplane!” with celebs Robert Hays and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying over its shorelines.

“Things have gotten much more competitive in Minnesota,” said John Edman, director of the state tourism department. “They’re all targeting us.”

Minnesota recently responded by increasing its tourism budget 65 percent to almost $14 million, which still lags behind Wisconsin’s $15.2 million. Chicago spends more on tourism than Minnesota and Wisconsin combined — and it shows. The Windy City recently dropped a 100-page glossy travel magazine in Sunday newspapers in the Twin Cities and other markets.

All the promotions are playing out as expectations build for a busy tourism season. AAA predicts that 36.1 million Americans will travel during Memorial Day weekend, a postrecession high.

In Minnesota, tourism is serious business, a $12.5 billion industry that employs more than 245,000 workers. The state must spend more to promote itself as travel destination or get left behind, Edman said, adding that a distinct message is critical, too.

“Many ad campaigns from state to state look the same, so we developed the ‘Only in Minnesota,’ campaign,” he said.

The television ads show images of the North Shore, Como Conservatory, Minnehaha Falls and Faribault Woolen Mills, rather than generic images of giddy kids at water parks.

Wisconsin, in turn, is simplifying its message to focus on fun, punctuated by some well-known faces. In its new television ads, basketball legend Abdul-Jabbar and actor Hays recreate their characters, Roger Murdock and Ted Striker from the 1980 comedy, “Airplane!”

The pair are shown flying over beautiful Wisconsin terrain when Abdul-Jabbar muses, “Why did I ever leave this place?” Abdul-Jabbar played six seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks before he joined the Los Angeles Lakers.

The ads have already generated an estimated $35 million in free publicity with coverage by TMZ, “Good Morning America” and People magazine. The promotion also generated more than 162,000 views on YouTube this past month. The latest ads by Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas barely break 8,000 views combined.

‘Now it’s digital’

Some states, including Minnesota, are pulling back from traditional TV, radio and print ads and focusing on social media. “The majority of our budget is being put into digital marketing, digital banner ads and search engine optimization,” Edman said.

Minnesota’s website,, has been reformatted for mobile devices with scenic images throughout the state, travel articles, improved search capability and a live chat function. Web traffic has increased 60 percent since the April 15 launch of a redesign.

“TV used to be the leader. Now it’s digital,” said Sara Otte Coleman, director of tourism for the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

One advantage of digital advertising is flexibility. “If something in a campaign isn’t performing, we can make a shift,” said Melissa Cherry, vice-president of cultural tourism and neighborhoods at Choose Chicago.

Her office plans to spend $3 million of its $32 million budget on TV and radio advertising, including webisodes of 12 Chicago neighborhoods called “Beyond the Loop.”

  • related content

  • Minnesota means business:  Tourism in the state is a $12.5 billion industry that employs more than 245,000 people.

  •  Wisconsin spoofs the movie “Airplane!” in a commercial series to attract tourists. The ad features co-stars Robert Hays, above, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the characters they played.

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