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, ExploreMinnesota.com, 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.”

States are aiming their tourism message to moms with kids in the home, said Shawna Lode, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office. “Women use social media to plan their travel, so that’s the bulk of our campaign.”

Other tourism promotional methods are still part of the toolbox. Several years ago states found great success wrapping buses or bus stops with scenes of splendor. Minnesota has upped its game by wrapping part of a building in Denver.

Extending advertising reach

Explore Minnesota is expanding advertising to an additional six states this year: Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, in addition to eight existing markets. Many Midwestern states are now expanding internationally to gain an edge.

Minnesota tripled its international budget this year with promotions extending beyond Canada and Europe into Mexico and China. “We don’t run any consumer ads yet, but we’re spending up to $500,000 trying to get travel writers here.” Edman said.

Wisconsin is focusing on Brazil and China. “By law, everyone in Brazil gets 30 days of vacation per year.” Klett said. “Chinese visitors spend twice as much as European visitors.”

Tourism offices say that dollars spent are a worthy investment. Minnesota gets $8 in tax revenue for every dollar that the state kicks in, based on past studies. But with perennially tight budgets, some states still tighten the purse strings.

Colorado dropped its tourism office in 1993, saving $12 million but losing $1.4 billion in tourism annually, according to Longwoods Travel USA tracking program. In summer resort revenue, Colorado went from first to 17th in 1994. The state reinstated the budget in 2000.

In 2011 the state of Washington also shut down its tourism offices but has not reopened them. “Our lesson to Washington is that since we went dark in 1993, we still haven’t gotten back to the national market we had,” said Al White, head of the Colorado Tourism Office.

Connecticut eliminated its budget in 2010 and saw travel-related tax revenue cut in half, a loss of $390 million in revenue. It restored the funds in 2011.

“States have to be constantly reinforcing the message,” said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Association. “If you don’t, people will forget about you.”

 

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633

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