Getting real with rural tourism

Leisure and hospitality jobs by county
Source: Explore Minnesota Tourism

From bass fishing to biking and skiing to snow shoeing, rural Minnesota offers tourists opportunities for fun and relaxation.

And tourists bring good things to rural Minnesota, too. Rural Minnesota has a 28% share of the nearly 13 billion dollar pie of annual gross sales in the leisure and hospitality industry, and 31% of the 250,117 jobs in private sector employment.1

Despite these numbers, professionals in the tourism industry are cautious cheerleaders. "Tourism is best thought of as a way to diversify, not replace, a rural region's economic drivers," says Cynthia Messer, Interim Director of the UMN Tourism Center. And with a vulnerability to economic and seasonal swings, communities have to be prepared for tourism's ups and downs.

That's why rural areas need to think critically – and realistically – about investing in tourism.

Why rural tourism?

A recent statewide initiative2 involved five rural Minnesota communities in a series of program activities designed to enhance their tourism potential. These five communities were strongly motivated to participate in the 18-month initiative because of the opportunity to grow revenue and jobs – but that's not all. "Creating opportunities for visitors makes our communities a more interesting place to live," says Brent Olson, a county commissioner and business owner who helped lead the Tourism Assessment Initiative in a cluster of three communities (Clinton, Graceville and Beardsley) in Western Minnesota. "And that enhances economic development in general."

Olson's Inadvertent Café is an example of such a community enhancement. People drive 50-60 miles for breakfast at Olson's café, "but it's also a place for people who live right here," says Olson. "Thing is, locals alone couldn't sustain a local restaurant. That's why we need to draw visitors."

Houston, Minnesota in Southeast Minnesota, also joined the initiative. Houston's stately landscape provides a natural barrier to growth. A flood plain and river levee borders the town to the north, and bluffs provide a barrier to the south. Town leaders are thoughtfully turning to tourism to make the most of the businesses that are there, building upon long-term efforts throughout the region to bring visitors to Southeast Minnesota.

As rural communities sunk their teeth into tourism assessment, they saw other reasons to consider tourism opportunities, too.

Seeing and nurturing local treasures

Tourism 1

As we've previously reported, asset-based community development is an important ingredient to creating vibrant communities. The Tourism Assessment Process (see box at right) encouraged rural communities to see these assets. Matthew Schutte of Houston's City Council, elaborates: "We've got great trout fishing, hunting, beautiful bluffs for hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, not to mention our International Owl Center. Our committee really began to appreciate all we had going for us, and we realized we weren't marketing what we have."

In Big Stone County, local groups are seeing people – not just places or things to do – as local treasures. Artists in their region are creating paintings, pottery, photography, dolls, wood carvings, and more, so the local arts council is working to promote local art and artists. Now, everyone can see artists' wares online and at regional events like the Upper Minnesota Valley Arts Crawl, led by the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Center.

Messer notes that an outsiders' view sometimes helps communities better realize their assets. "Communities sometimes don't see what's possible the way that outsiders do." She notes an example from Houston, which is located along the Root River Trail. "We kept hearing Houston residents say 'It's tough to be at the end of the Root River Trail. People start their bike ride close to the Twin Cities, and travelers are tired at the end.' We recommended they re-think their premise. Houston can promote their town as the starting point for bikers, rather than an end. This shift made a difference. The beautiful trailhead at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is only one block from downtown, so that's a perfect asset that can support bikers just starting a ride."

New connections

"In rural communities, regional connections are always important," says Messer. "But that's especially true in tourism development." Visitors look for multiple activities and attractions to draw and hold them. Smaller towns might be successful if they are part of a regional approach, but aren't likely to find payoffs on their own.

After assessing local assets, rural communities often find themselves joining regional groups and considering how to use regional outlets to market their communities. Or they create these outlets themselves. In Big Stone County, for example, the community tourism initiative inspired the idea to create a web site featuring all of the towns in the area. They branded the effort using their regional map location on the "bump" on the western border of Minnesota. Their website, now called MNbump.com invites visitors to read blogs written by locals and learn about places and events. They can also see videos about community life, click on links to local media, and see a calendar of events. According to the web site, the tourism assessment process pointed to online opportunities: "marketing our tourism opportunities via web was identified as a top priority. With further discussion, it was determined that web marketing could also provide an opportunity for residents to communicate."

Messer enthusiastically endorses strategies like mnbump.org. "Big Stone County has created an online resource that authentically markets the area. This kind of online presence can attract visitors – and maybe even new residents," she says.

Advice for other rural towns

Olson and Schutte share their advice for other towns thinking about tourism. Here are their top takeaways:

  • Don't be afraid to get outsiders' perspectives. "You can get great ideas from experts," says Olson, "and you can get blunt questions from any outsider – like 'Where the heck can you get a good supper around here?' You're going to hear things you wish you didn't hear. But it's profoundly useful. And these perspectives can also tell you about virtues you didn't know your community possessed."
  • Get the whole community on board. Olson also notes that a benefit of the tourism initiative in Big Stone County is realizing that every cashier in town is a community ambassador. They often have the information visitors need to make the most of their visit.
  • Gather a team. Schutte says that the people involved in tourism development make a difference. "When looking for people to get involved, make sure you involve people who are passionate about seeing things grow and get better. If you don't, you won't get the value out of the experience."

Learn more

The Tourism Assessment Program (TAP): At-a-glance

Who's it for?

TAP works best for communities that are ready to take a community-based approach that enhances tourism and encourages visitors to contribute to the local economy.

What does the program entail?

  1. A structure that helps the community identify its local assets – the people, places and things that your community can leverage to attract visitors and make the most of their visits.
  2. A facilitated community meeting to identify perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from tourism development.
  3. A visit from tourism specialists who can point out opportunities and trends your town can build upon.
  4. A "mystery shopper" visit by people from another community. They will tell you what it's like to visit your town for the first time.
  5. An analysis of all of the information gleaned from these activities, summarized in a written report that highlights findings and suggests ideas your community can choose among. This report is also discussed with the community at a meeting.
  6. An evaluation of the project 6 - 12 months after the report is delivered to identify outcomes and impacts.

How long does it take?

12 - 18 months

Is there a cost?

Yes, there are fees to cover some program costs. If your community is unable to pay the full amount, we can suggest several funding resources that might help.

What's the first step?

If you are a community leader who thinks that help from Extension can focus your community on its tourism potential, contact Cynthia Messer. She'll help you figure out if it's the right next step.

1 Here, we define "rural" as everything outside the MSP, Rochester, and St. Cloud areas, assuming that other Greater Minnesota cities are part of a rural tourism economy. 

2 This initiative was led by the UMN Tourism Center, the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, and Extension's Community Economics Program Area.

Reviewed in 2016

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