Xinyi Qian is the University of Minnesota Tourism Center director.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic moved our work to a completely virtual setting, and by early summer 2021, I was aching to get back on the road to catch up with partners and build new relationships. Between August and October that year, I took trips to three regions in Greater Minnesota (see map). Cities I visited include:
- (Trip 1) Red Wing, Lake City, Winona, Lanesboro, Preston, Rochester and Cannon Falls
- (Trip 2) Duluth, Finland, Pine City and Franconia Sculpture Park
- (Trip 3) Brainerd, Grand Rapids, Bemidji and Park Rapids
During these trips, I met with folks from:
- Destination management organizations and chambers of commerce
- Workforce, economic, and community development professionals
- Small business and farm owners
- Event organizers
- Experts from nonprofit and arts organizations
Our wide-ranging, inspiring, and timely conversations not only helped keep us grounded but also informed priority areas for the Tourism Center’s work going forward. A few themes also arose from our discussions.
People in all three regions shared evidence of climate impact, including little snowmobiling activity due to a lack of snow, drought conditions prohibiting trout fishing, and boat landing closures due to low water levels. Faced with these climate-related challenges, professionals across the tourism industry have brainstormed solutions.
For example, organizers of large sporting events are participating in Dialogue on Sport and Climate Action, with the goal of major sporting events becoming net-zero carbon dioxide emission by mid-century. Leaders of small communities are prioritizing the installation of electric vehicle charging stations.
The tourism industry itself also recognizes the importance of highlighting climate impact, such as using art as a medium and featuring interactive ecological education when building a new visitor center.
Workforce challenges existed prior to the pandemic and were not unique to the tourism industry. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only exacerbated them. During my conversations with community leaders, business owners, and workforce development professionals, I learned about the steps they’ve taken to address the issue.
Some are taking action to expand the pool of potential workers (e.g., hiring workers with disabilities or homeless youth). Others are focused on finding answers to the long-term questions of how to build the workforce pipeline and use technology to help reduce labor intensity.
Businesses are also communicating their needs for customer service training and educating frontline workers to become “tourism ambassadors” for their communities.
The tourism, hospitality, and outdoor recreation industry is a part of the larger economic system. As such, overarching societal issues — aside from workforce challenges — have a significant impact on them.
Affordable housing was another topic that came up in many conversations, as the issue plagues both micropolitan and rural areas alike. A lack of affordable housing is closely tied to the workforce shortage since it’s often difficult for seasonal workers to find affordable housing and makes relocating for a job with a modest income prohibitive. It also makes it harder for the tourism industry to retain frontline employees.
Similarly, the lack of public transportation, especially in Greater Minnesota communities, impacts both supply and demand. On the supply side, lower-income workers need public transportation to access employment opportunities. On the demand side, visitors in need of public transportation may be either dissuaded to visit a particular destination or have a diminished experience.
Additionally, global supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic have also impacted the tourism industry. From linens at hotels to food at restaurants, businesses are facing tremendous pressure to stay fully operating.
On a positive note, however, the tourism industry is known for its “halo effect” and has actively contributed to resident recruitment efforts. For instance:
- Duluth and its surrounding communities have introduced “North by Choice,” a resident recruitment campaign that features “124,000 cabins in the region to cozy up in” as a reason to live in the region.
- Itasca County has started “Thrive Up North,” which is a collaborative rural recruitment marketing campaign that showcases local breweries, restaurants, and nature-based amenities.
- The Greater Bemidji area is showcasing its “218 Relocate” program, which highlights the appeal of the region’s sports and recreation, arts and culture, and shopping and attractions.
During my visits, the desire to have data on the economic value of a particular amenity or attraction was frequently expressed, especially for festivals, events, fairs, and arts/culture. Professionals across the industry want to better understand data — what insight can it offer, and how might we use the insight to inform decisions and strategic priorities?
Public entities, nonprofit organizations, and higher education institutions all provide data, and it is our responsibility to communicate insight from data to communities and businesses in a way that is easy to understand and meaningful to use.
Putting it all together
The themes that emerged from my trips across Greater Minnesota align with priority areas the Tourism Center will pursue in the next few years — namely, outdoor recreation and natural resources, workforce education, and consumer intelligence. By doing so, we will continue to meet the needs of both our industry and communities to empower and support them for success and sustainability.