Tourism rep: vacation, getaway not the same

Minnesota wants to replenish what the rest of the world takes away.

That is a marketing theme for the state, the heart of one effort to drive tourists north and westward – from Wisconsin – as impending war and a weak economy hover menacingly.

“Send ’em over here,” says Jim Keller of Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest, south of Bemidji. He wants you to know that the lakes are filled with “fresh walleyes” just waiting for a hook.

Woods, waterways, lakes and hiking trails make the Land of 10,000 Lakes “well-positioned for family travel,” Bill Norman, CEO of the Travel Industry Association, told more than 300 people at the recent Minnesota Governor’s Conference on Tourism, held at the historic Kahler Grand Hotel in Rochester.

It was a mostly subdued and straightforward audience, not like the upbeat and jovial Wisconsin tourism group that convenes every March.

TIA represents all segments of the U.S. travel industry, whose estimated impact is $537 billion. Since Sept. 11, 2001, TIA staff has spent a lot of time molding legislation, “to strike the appropriate balance between homeland security and travel facilitation,” and lobbying for highway improvement funding.

Staff also track travel trends and conclude that leisure travel increased in 2002, but that travelers stayed closer to home. There have been more road trips, TIA says, and about 30 percent more RV rentals since 2001.

Norman says 75 percent of travelers nationwide are using the road – via RV, auto, bus or touring vehicle – to get to their destinations. He observes that Canada is “our biggest international inbound market and, for many states, a ‘drive’ market.”

Shall we turn our engines toward Toronto this summer?

The preference for road travel certainly is expected to remain if war is waged with Iraq, says Norman, who bases his predictions on what happened during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.“It probably will cause a drop in air travel and make domestic travel flat for the remainder of the year,” he says.

A wild card of unknown influence is the possibility of retaliation on U.S. soil. “No one knows what the response from terrorists will be,” Norman notes, but it could further adversely impact the desire to travel.

None of that is good news, and we haven’t even talked about weather patterns, or the lack of them. John Edman, state deputy commissioner for tourism, recalls “back when Minnesota had snow” throughout the winter, instead of holding off until the end of January. The lack of vibrant fall colors in 2002 and the gloomy impact of heavy rains also have been challenges.

Hotel occupancy statewide dipped 2 percent between 2001 and 2002, Edman says. His budget for state tourism promotions and operations has been cut $1.5 million, to $9 million. That meant a loss of funds to operate five of 12 tourism information centers in the state last fall; all are open now, because of new alliances between state and local tourism offices.

Norman says there has been a 30 percent drop in the United States’ share of international travel, a result of Sept. 11 terrorism and the successful efforts of some countries to spend up to $100 million per year to promote themselves.

The post 9-11 world requires us to be ever vigilant and ever aggressive,” Norman says. He believes collateral damage can be minimized by “pooling your money to market” and exploring “untapped partnership opportunities” within a specific geographic area or between businesses that are competitors.

“The era of partnerships has really just begun,” Norman says. “Rarely does an entire industry get a chance to turn a setback into a tremendous advantage.”

Edman notes that “people still want to get away, to relax, to replenish, to use their vacation days.” His state’s new partnerships will involve the Department of Natural Resources, professional sports teams, the state lottery and state arts board.

We have to continue to change our way of doing things, to put aside our differences … to find different ways to get the job done,” Edman says. Each $1 in marketing, his staff say, generates $4.60 in state and local taxes in Minnesota.

Eric Whitaker, of the Colle + McVoy marketing and advertising company in Minneapolis, says most visitors to Minnesota come from within a 400- to 500-mile radius. The firm studied traveler attitudes in Milwaukee, Chicago and Fargo.

He challenges the tourism industry to “leverage consumers out of inertia,” and “educate consumers on what a vacation is all about.” That’s based on his findings that people tend to either not use all of their vacation days, or use them “on things they have to do” instead of things they want to do.

Back to the Minnesota slogan – that it replenishes what the rest of the world takes away – Whitaker suggests that tourism vendors realize there is a difference between a “vacation” and a “getaway.” It’s the difference between fulfillment and escape, reconnecting with loved ones vs. relieving stress.

The key, he says, is to determine what kind of destination you are, then match your message with consumer needs.

We’ll do our part to boost the great state of Minnesota this winter by noting the dates of Badger sports events in the Twin Cities. The men’s hockey team plays at 7:05 p.m. Feb. 14 and 15, the women’s basketball team is there at 7 p.m. Feb. 27, and the men’s basketball team plays at 1 p.m. March 2.
When hitting the road, regardless of your sports team loyalty, be aware of Minneapolis’ newly opened Block E – an eating, drinking and entertainment district downtown. Its borders are Hennepin Avenue, First Avenue, Sixth and Seventh streets.
The complex includes a Hard Rock Café. There also is a 38,000-square-foot GameWorks that is filled with interactive games, the creation of Sega and Universal Studios. This is one of 15 worldwide (there’s also one in Schaumburg, Ill.).
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