The Fight For Fun

The Fight For Fun

The battle for Minnesotans' summer vacation dollars.


A good-natured war, to be sure. But with the summer tourism season heating up, Minnesota is engaging in a serious battle with nearby states to lure neighboring states’ residents—and to keep Minnesotans vacationing within its borders.

There’s a good reason that states are slugging it out for vacation turf. According to the State of Minnesota, tourism translates into about 235,000 jobs—11 percent of the state’s total private-sector employment. Those jobs are found in hotels and lodges, restaurants, and arts and entertainment businesses. The tourism sector generated $732 million in sales taxes last year, about 17 percent of the state’s total sales tax revenue.

Minnesota’s biggest competitors for tourists’ wallets are South Dakota and Wisconsin. Particularly within geographic regions, such as the Upper Midwest, “states realize that they are competing for the same travelers,” says Adam Sacks, managing director of Pennsylvania-based research firm Tourism Economics.

The chief weapons in the war are ads—the word “campaign” carries a double meaning here. Social media platforms also are being hustled into the fray. The battles tend to be collegial; Sacks can’t remember ever seeing a state “go negative” by bashing a neighbor. But make no mistake: The fight for fun is serious business.

How many travelers are lured by a state’s marketing campaign? Hard to say for sure. Too many extraneous factors affect travel: national economic conditions, gasoline prices, quirks of nature (such as last spring’s flooding along the Missouri River that frightened tourists away from South Dakota), and political roadblocks, such as last July’s state government shutdown in Minnesota, whose effect on tourism-related revenue remains uncertain.

One thing that is certain: In this three-way marketing battle, Minnesota is seriously outgunned. In the fiscal year that begins in July, Wisconsin’s state tourism office budget will be $12.5 million; South Dakota’s will be $11.7 million, about the same as last year’s. Minnesota’s budget, meanwhile, will be just $8.4 million. (Iowa’s tourism promotion budget is a little more than $1 million; North Dakota’s is a little less than $2 million. Those small budgets are the reason we didn’t include these other neighbors in this war report.)

Economic impact of tourism

But one could argue that tourism marketing is a jobs program. “A high proportion of tourist dollars go to employees,” Sacks says. “You get more jobs per dollar spent, compared with industries like manufacturing or financial services.”

Sacks’ firm has conducted more than 100 tourism economic-impact studies for cities, states, regions, and countries. He says that those studies show that, from a state’s point of view, tourism is an unusually attractive industry for several reasons. “In an [economic climate] where job creation is a paramount objective, tourism is one of the better means of generating employment,” Sacks notes.


Then there are the benefits to state government coffers. More people working means more people paying income taxes. Not to mention that many sales taxes are aimed specifically at travelers; Sacks points to hotel and rental car taxes, for example. The upshot is that “tourism tends to generate more taxes per dollar spent than other industries,” he says.

There are some caveats here. Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, notes that while the leisure and hospitality sector hires a number of workers, the average hourly earnings for these jobs are barely half of the average hourly earnings among all private-sector workers. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March the average hourly earnings for leisure and hospitality workers were $13.33, while the average hourly earnings for all private workers were $23.39.

Still, the economic benefits of tourism are enough for numerous states to devote public money to attract vacationers. State tourism departments work with advertising agencies to devise campaigns that are evaluated using all the standard metrics: counts of ad impressions and general brand awareness, inquiries and cost per inquiry, lead generation, traffic to websites, focus groups, and more.

Here’s what the three states are doing to attract tourists, and the enticements that Minnesotans will see this summer.


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Start with the home-state team. Last spring, Explore Minnesota, the state’s publicly funded tourism office, launched its “More to Explore” TV commercial, the spot in which Twins catcher Joe Mauer demonstrates why he pursued a career in baseball rather than singing. Mauer’s pipes notwithstanding, “More to Explore” won the U.S. Travel Association’s 2011 Mercury Award as the best state tourism ad broadcast in the country.

The commercial runs in several Midwestern states and in Manitoba, as well as in Minnesota, but its bouncy jingle has an insider feel (think of the line “from Ada to Zumbrota”), as if it were intended to appeal to Minnesotans themselves. That’s no accident. In-state residents account for about half of all travel spending in Minnesota. Explore Minnesota director John Edman says that part of his job is to encourage Minnesotans to vacation close to home. Forty percent of Minnesota’s tourism marketing budget currently is aimed at in-state residents. Edman says that the figure was 50 percent in 2009 and 2010, when the economy made people more apt to look for close-by vacation spots.

With the regional economy in better shape, neighboring states are looking to draw Minnesotans across the border. “An interesting thing about Minnesota, compared to most of our neighbors, is that we have a major population center in Minneapolis–St. Paul,” Edman says. The presence of a relatively big media market (the nation’s 15th largest) “has made us more of a target for states that have more resources.” He says that the competition for Minnesota travelers has intensified since the economic crash of 2008.

With an envious eye on South Dakota’s tourism department, which receives its revenue from gaming and hospitality taxes instead of relying on the state’s general fund, Explore Minnesota lobbied in 2011 for a 1 percent increase in rental car taxes. The measure was recommended by Governor Mark Dayton, but died in the legislative session this past summer during the 20-day state shutdown.

With the marketing budget tight, “the dollars we put in have to work harder,” says Ryan Olson, an account director at Colle+McVoy, the Minneapolis advertising agency that handles Minnesota’s tourism account. Since Minnesota can’t outspend Wisconsin or South Dakota—never mind Michigan, whose $30 million tourism budget is the Midwest’s largest—“we need to push ourselves to do high-impact stuff,” Olson says.

The “More to Explore” TV commercial is an example, he says. It will air again as this year’s summer tourism marketing season gets underway, often during Twins games on Fox Sports North, which are broadcast in much of the region that Explore Minnesota wants to reach. In addition, a series of radio spots will feature local and regional bands singing alternating lines from the “More to Explore” jingle in their own styles.

Those radio ads will include “some musical surprises for Midwesterners, and especially for Minnesota music fans, as we unveil the bands,” says Eric Husband, executive creative director for Colle+McVoy. “We really ran the gamut [of styles].” Partly because money is tight, television advertising this year will account for only about 25 percent of the marketing budget, down from 42 percent in recent years. More than half of the ad budget now is devoted to digital media, where dollars go further, he says. That includes the website, search-engine marketing, banner advertising, and other forms of promotion on social media sites and elsewhere.

From a marketing standpoint, Minnesota’s great advantage is its “incredible diversity of resources,” Edman says. His agency can promote sports, cultural attractions, and shopping opportunities in the Twin Cities; lakes and outdoor activities in the north; and picturesque small towns in the south.

But that diversity is also a kind of curse when one tries to sell the state as a whole. Edman says that a special task force, using research into regional and national perceptions of Minnesota, is now trying to identify an “umbrella brand” for the state’s marketing efforts.

Edman says he isn’t sure whether a good answer will emerge from the effort. If it does, we should find out this summer or fall.


Where Wisconsin tourists come from


The political divide in Wisconsin is so bitter that last year a group of Democratic legislators fled the state for several days, while this June a special recall election threatens Republican Governor Scott Walker. But on one issue, Wisconsin politicians stand shoulder-to-shoulder: Everybody loves tourism dollars.

Minnesotans are prime targets. A 2010 study showed that aside from Minnesota itself, Wisconsin is the most appealing summer destination of Twin Cities leisure travelers. “And we think there’s plenty of room for growth there,” says Dave Fantle, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, who adds that the Twin Cities trail only Chicago as an out-of-state target market for media buying.

Wisconsin last year adopted a new theme for its tourism advertising: fun. In 2010, Fantle says, research presented to the department by its ad agency, Laughlin Constable of Milwaukee, showed that “Fun” is the number-one motivation for leisure travel, outranking “rest and relaxation” and “friends and family.”

People in Minnesota and other states got a taste of the fun campaign earlier this year in a TV commercial called “Winter Wonderland.” Directed by Wisconsin native David Zucker, the creative force behind Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, the commercial showed a performance by the Milwaukee Symphony degenerating into a chaotic snowball fight.

In the past 15 years, Wisconsin went through five taglines, including “Life’s So Good,” and “Live Like You Mean It.” Fantle predicts that “fun” will have more staying power because it is not so much a commercial tag line as a unifying concept or a center of gravity for storytelling in all media: TV, radio, print, and digital.

“We’re not going to try to shove all of Wisconsin into one TV or radio ad,” says Casey Flanagan, a senior vice president with Laughlin Constable. “We can translate ‘fun’ in a lot of ways. It lets us tell a lot of different stories about the state.”

Flanagan says that two new 30-second TV ads will debut this spring to promote summer tourism. In one, shot in Wisconsin Dells, three 30-something guys go zip-lining, golfing, and go-karting. In the other, a family goes fishing, boating, and bicycling near Spring Green, an attractive river-valley city west of Madison. When the parents sneak away to Spring Green’s American Players Theater, they find themselves sitting next to Wisconsin native Tony Shalhoub, who played the eponymous hero in the cable-TV series Monk. In a third summer TV spot, revamped from last year, actor Henry Winkler appears next to his likeness: the “Bronze Fonz,” Milwaukee’s answer to Minneapolis’s Mary Tyler Moore statue.

“We’ve been sprinkling our ads with celebrities, like Minnesota used Joe Mauer [in its “More to Explore” ad campaign], because public relations is an important component in marketing,” Fantle says. When you bring in someone like Winkler, Zucker, or Shalhoub, “it becomes a press story,” he explains. Zucker’s “Winter Wonderland” commercial, for instance, generated at least one feature-length Associated Press story.

Simple proximity dictates that Minnesotans are more likely to visit the western half of Wisconsin (think Hayward and Bayfield), Fantle says, while Chicagoans feel a stronger pull from Door County in the eastern part of the state. (The region around Minocqua is a big vacation draw for both Minnesotans and Chicagoans.) Television is too expensive a medium to allow for customization, so the same TV ads will play in all target markets this summer.

All told, Wisconsin spends about 55 percent of its tourism marketing budget on television, with print accounting for 2 percent and social media 4 percent. Marketing tactics aimed specifically at Minnesotans are more likely to take other forms. Fantle says that this summer’s strategies will include signage in the Minneapolis skyway system and on light-rail trains.

South Dakota

Where South Dakota tourists come from


“We love Minnesota,” says James Hagen, secretary of South Dakota’s department of tourism. As a marketing target, he means. Aside from in-state travelers, Minnesota is the chief source of vacationers to South Dakota. And Minnesotans are more likely than in-state people to make vacation arrangements through Hagen’s agency. They rank first in website traffic, inquiries, and hotel/tour bookings through the tourism department.

About 15 percent of the department’s marketing budget is aimed at Minnesota. Hagen calls the Twin Cities “the bull’s-eye” of his out-of-state advertising efforts and adds that South Dakota also buys media time in Rochester, St. Cloud, and other Minnesota markets.

From Hagen’s perspective, Minnesotans have some special virtues. One is that in order to get to the famous tourist attractions in western South Dakota—Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, historic Deadwood—Minnesotans have to travel all the way across the state. “More miles in the state mean more stops for gas, food, and lodging,” Hagen notes. And Minnesotans on the way to Mount Rushmore “might stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell and at Wall Drug and the Badlands.”

That is why “we like promoting all of South Dakota to Minnesotans” instead of just the fall pheasant hunting season and other attractions in the eastern half of the state.

South Dakota’s bird hunting certainly exerts a strong pull on Minnesotans, however, which is another of the state’s attractions. Since 2009, South Dakota has used strategies including sponsorship tie-ins with the Minnesota Vikings to promote a marketing campaign called “Take Me Hunting.” The “me” in that slogan is the hunter’s canine comrade.

The TV and print campaign is “an attempt to leverage the relationship hunters have with their dogs,” says Micah Aberson, vice president of client services for Lawrence & Shiller, the Sioux Falls ad agency that handles South Dakota’s tourism account. “Part of the joy is to see a well-trained hunting dog get out in the field. So we figured, why not tell the story from the dog’s perspective?”

The tourism department credits “Take Me Hunting” for the fact that sales of nonresident small-game licenses saw only about a five percent decline in 2011—to 97,000, from 102,000 in 2010—despite a dramatic and well-publicized 46 percent drop in the pheasant population. Almost 25,000 of those nonresident licenses were sold to Minnesotans.The pheasant campaign has sponsored a Vikings game each fall for the past three seasons (all three of which the Vikings won, Hagen points out), hosted a hospitality tent in the Metrodome parking area at several other games, and bought banner advertising on the team’s website. The thinking is simple, Aberson says: “Research shows that 80 percent of Minnesota hunters are Vikings fans.”

Hagen wasn’t sure yet what South Dakota might do with the Vikings this fall. But he does promise something dramatically different in this year’s spring and summer advertising. “Great Faces, Great Places”—the theme song and slogan of the state’s tourism industry for two decades—will be far less in evidence. “We’re not abandoning the jingle,” Hagen says. “But we’re going to put it on the shelf for a while and try something new.”

A new TV campaign, called “Your American Journey,” will make its debut this spring, with 30- and 60-second commercials that use video footage of state attractions shot from a helicopter by high-definition cameras. Aberson says that the visuals and music will be much more dramatic and more “romantic” than in the past.

“‘Great Faces, Great Places’ has done extremely well, but [the state] has been running the same play now for eight or nine years,” Aberson says. “We don’t want the target audience to get only the message it already expects from us.”

Two versions of the commercial focus on the western part of the state; the other two show more of the eastern half. Minnesotans might see more of the latter versions than, say, Montanans. But not to worry: All versions feature Mount Rushmore. “It would be a mistake ever to run anything and not include that,” Aberson says. “It’s the icon of our state.”

And when you’re fighting a battle like attracting tourists, it’s good to have four major presidents on your side.

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