Think your family reunion might enjoy feeding Como Zoo’s giraffes before the crowds arrive? How about your youth baseball team signing up to be St. Paul Saints for a day, complete with a trip to the batting cage?
Dozens of well-known attractions throughout the Twin Cities are turning to what they call “signature experiences” — value-added, immersive, hands-on activities meant to attract groups looking for more than your average tour. For 2016, Visit St. Paul, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, has joined Meet Minneapolis and the Mall of America in offering group experiences that cost a little more but promise a more fulfilling event.
In Minneapolis, that means learning stage combat at the Guthrie or glassblowing at Foci Center for Glass Arts. At the Mall of America, it could be a scavenger hunt at Dick’s Last Resort. Officials will host a kickoff to more than 30 such experiences April 7 at the mall.
“We are supersizing the cheeseburger, [enhancing] what has been familiar,” said Adam Johnson, vice president of marketing and media relations for Visit St. Paul.
Said Nick Cusick, marketing and media relations manager: “We’re creating Facebook envy.”
When it comes to pulling people to your city, or even injecting new life into attractions long familiar to a local audience, group tourism has become a highly competitive, said Joe Veneto, founder of Massachusetts-based Opportunities Unlimited. In 2004, he created a way to help destination marketing groups add pizazz to their attractions by letting people get behind the scenes and hands-on. Since then, he said he has worked with more than two dozen visitor and convention bureaus and hundreds of attractions across the country.
“You want the customer to have such a great time that they are going to continue to talk about it long after they’re gone,” he said, likening the old way of providing passive tours with less customer involvement as “show-and-tell.”
He added: “It’s not show-and-tell anymore. Show-and-tell is dead.”
‘People want more’
Veneto started working with Meet Minneapolis, the Mall of America and several of their business partners in 2013, including Fort Snelling and Midtown Global Market. Visit St. Paul came aboard last year and will begin offering six experiences this year, including tours of CHS Field and Landmark Center. The training takes months, as staff members become actors using scripts and action to pull people into the attraction.
At Foci, in northeast Minneapolis, groups have their pick of two experiences: Glass Discovery, where they can make their own glass piece with a professional, or a large group demonstration that touches on the science and history of the art, said Bryan Ethier, one of the instructors. The experiences attract senior and church groups, Boy Scout troops and classes from local schools.
“They love it,” said Ethier, who said the nonprofit always had occasional tours but now has several groups come through each week. “It’s become an actual revenue stream for us.”
Bill Deef, senior vice president of public affairs for Meet Minneapolis, said going behind the scenes at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts or taking a Segway tour on Main Street is as much about opening the eyes of locals as it is attracting out-of-towners.
“A lot of people have never done these things, and they have lived here for years,” he said, noting that Minneapolis is adding several new experiences this year, including tours at the Willey House, Spoonriver and the Textile Center. “This is going really well for us.”
Chris Grap, business development and project manager at the Mall of America, said working with Veneto and developing value-added attractions was a natural fit for the mall. “It’s in our DNA,” he said of attractions like Nickelodeon Universe and Sea Life Aquarium. Now, though, retailers also are picking up on the trend.
At Dick’s Last Resort, participants in groups of 20 or more grab an iPad and head out on a mall scavenger hunt offered daily. The activity costs $18.95 per person or $12.95 with the purchase of a meal, according to the mall website.
“People want more,” Grap said. “They want to feel like they are experiencing something that’s exclusive and unique.”
Behind the zoo
Visit St. Paul paid Veneto $7,500 per partner to consult and train participants, Johnson said. To ensure they had some “skin in the game,” each participant paid a participation fee — for-profits paid $1,000, nonprofits paid $500.
At Como Zoo, which has started some early tours before the official kickoff date, the “Wake Up With the Zoo” tour costs $35 per person. Starting at 8:30 a.m. — well before the zoo’s 10 a.m. opening — participants learn about the zoo’s past, present and future before meeting animals up close and watching zookeepers prepare for the day.
As part of the tour, participants prepare “enrichments” for the zoo’s polar bears, Buzz and Neil (such as snacks that include vegetables and fruit rollups) and feed the giraffes, said Bekah Hanes, one of the zoo’s presenters.
At the primate building, they hear about “Casey’s Great Escape” when a gorilla got out in 1994 and learn about how longtime volunteer and “zoo mama” Arlene Scheunemann raised baby animals in her home. It’s quite a bit more than most of the zoo’s 2 million annual visitors get to experience, Hanes said.
“We are trying to tell our story and say ‘Como is a really amazing place, let’s show you some things you don’t know about us,’ ” Hanes said.
Really, said Visit St. Paul’s Johnson, “That’s the whole idea.”