May 27, 2014: Steven Ragatz performed during the 14th Annual Flint Hills International Children's Festival in St. Paul, MN.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Planning a vacation? Catch the St. Paul truck

  • Article by: James Walsh
  • Star Tribune
  • June 15, 2014 - 10:07 PM

The truck looks like something that would sell you a sandwich. Instead, it’s selling St. Paul.

From a truck named “Paul” that’s loaded with brochures, beer cozies and Bit-O-Honeys, the capital city’s convention and visitors bureau is marketing St. Paul this summer as a regional road trip for people from places like Winnipeg and Chicago.

Believe it or not, it’s just another bit of momentum that is making St. Paul something of a vacation destination.

Most romantic getaway in North America? You betcha, at least according to USA Today. The newspaper also rated the Lowertown district in downtown St. Paul as one of the nation’s hippest neighborhoods.

What’s going on in that ­quieter, older city to the east of sleek, modern Minneapolis? Quite a lot, actually. From hyping craft beers and music festivals to promoting museums and minor league baseball, St. Paul is pushing itself on would-be visitors like seldom before.

Adam Johnson, vice president of marketing for Visit St. Paul, said the idea for “Paul” came from a tourism blogger he knows who wondered why a truck couldn’t serve as a mobile visitors center. After all, they have become huge as mobile takeout counters.

With wraparound awnings to keep people dry, cellphone chargers to lure them and a spinning wheel offering prizes like little Salted Nut Rolls — made by Pearson Candy Co. in St. Paul — Johnson said that “Paul” has proved to be a pretty good attention-getter.

“Last year, we got a lot of people to come over and register with us in Des Moines, Duluth, Fargo, Milwaukee and Mankato,” he said of the thousands who have given their e-mail addresses for chances to win getaway packages.

This year, the truck is going to Milwaukee, Chicago, Winnipeg, Fargo and Sioux Falls — “Places where folks might be interested in a long weekend here,” Johnson said.

And the response from those who come up to the van?

“You get everything from ‘Where is St. Paul?’ to ‘I have a friend who lives there,’ ” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is, just get them thinking of St. Paul and the Twin Cities for a road-trip vacation.”

At Grand Old Day a couple of weeks ago, staff and interns were hawking a VIP trip for four to St. Paul, with dinner at the St. Paul Hotel and tickets to a Minnesota Wild suite.

Sponsors and partners cover most of the program’s $50,000 annual budget — a literal drop in the bucket when compared to Texas’ tourism area at the Minnesota State Fair, which costs $5 million, Johnson said.

For those who think a vacation to St. Paul might be, well, a bit underwhelming … ­Bethanne Tobey of Wilmington, N.C., has some news for you. She and her husband, Nolan, won a getaway package to St. Paul last year.

“I’ll admit, we were skeptical when we’d first heard about St. Paul as the ‘Most Romantic Getaway,’ ” she said in an e-mail. “We live in quite a romantic town ourselves that’s surrounded by white sandy beaches, crystal blue water, horse-drawn carriages and live oaks with Spanish moss. It oozes with Southern charm.”

‘We had a blast!’

But their weekend was packed with things to do, like beer, baseball and a bit of romance. “We had a blast! This trip gave Nolan and I something that we don’t get a lot of — time with each other,” she said. “Is St. Paul in itself romantic? I don’t know, all I can tell you is that we found romance in St. Paul and were lucky enough to bring it back home with us.”

Jake Spano, who handles marketing for the city, said it is all about carving out an identity. For years, he said, St. Paul has been known as the last great Eastern city, with ­winding streets, historic buildings, a Winter Carnival and neighborhoods with distinctive personalities.

But it is also becoming known for the Red Bull Crashed Ice event, museums, Harriet Island and now the restored Union Depot.

“St. Paul is a unique destination, unlike any of its Midwestern neighbors,” he said.

Sometimes, the key to getting more tourists is “just getting out there and telling our story,” Mayor Chris Coleman said.

If that story comes wrapped inside a tricked-out van, all the better.

“Did you know they named it ‘Paul?’ ” Coleman said.



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