Start seeing visitors (Hint - they look an awful lot like tourists)

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Think you don't live in a tourist town? Think again. Every town has visitors — people spending holidays with relatives; people who come through town on business; guests at weddings or funerals; relatives coming for a family reunion. Most visitors spend money while they are in town, which contributes to the local economy and tax base. And that makes them a lot like tourists.

A study of visitor expenditures in Montana in 2001 showed that those who visited for purposes other than vacationing spent almost 60 percent of what vacationers spent. These visitors left money behind for gas, retail purchases, eating, drinking and lodging. A closer look shows that 16 percent of these non-vacationing travelers were visiting family and friends; 26 percent were passing through; 9 percent were there on business and 6 percent were visiting for other reasons. Each visitor seeing family and friends averaged daily expenditures of $110.11, while those who visited on business spent $123.38.1

A 2005-2006 study of 2,292 Minnesota travelers showed that these "accidental tourists" are important to Minnesota communities, as well. Business was the purpose for travel among 14% of visitors surveyed; an additional 8% were attending a convention or conference, and 20 percent said the trip was "personal". Fifteen percent of visitors were staying with family or friends during their vacation.

Given the right experience, these visitors come again or recommend the town to their friends. The point is, whether you consider your community a tourist town or not, even non-vacationing visitors can have an economic impact. It makes sense to capitalize on that by knowing visitors and offering them goods and services that make them want to spend.

Getting to know visitors

There are many ways to get to know visitors better, according to Cynthia Messer, Extension professor with the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center. Information about visitors can be gathered formally or informally. Just remember to record what you learn in a spreadsheet or other central document.

  • Observe. When visitors are in town, pay attention to what they do, where they go, and what they buy.
  • Count. Gate receipts, ticket sales, number of turnstile revolutions, traffic counts, license plate origins or numbers of cars in parking lots may reveal how significant visitors are to your local economy, especially during local events.
  • Invite feedback. Suggestion boxes or comment books, placed in highly visible places, are an inexpensive way to hear about visitors' satisfaction — or dissatisfaction — with their experience in your community.
  • Have a chat. Much information can be gathered simply by being open and friendly hosts to guests who come to town. Courteous questions like "Where are you from? What are you up to today? How long are you staying? Anything you need while you're here?" make visitors feel welcome. Answers to these questions provide a baseline of information that can help your town be more responsive to future guests.
  • Research your questions. More formally, interviews can be conducted in places where visitors enter or exit communities. Structured interviews provide consistent data that can be shaped into visitor profiles. Surveys can gather information, too — whether online, in focus groups, by telephone or by mail or drop box, research can help visitors describe why they traveled, what they did, how they got information, and their interests.
  • Market Analysis. National marketing specialists have characterized people from various zip codes, summarizing the average likes, dislikes, information preferences and lifestyle preferences of people from that area. Extension's Market Area Profiles program can help your community access and analyze that data. This data can be customized by zip code if retailers in your community collect that information.

Meet needs, tap opportunities

Of course, information is useless if a community doesn't use it to help future visitors have a great experience. The right local strategies can prompt visitors to happily spend more money than they thought they would in your town—and maybe come back again.

Helpful information Community action
Where do visitors come from? Target future marketing efforts on areas where existing visitors are coming from.
Who are they? e.g., age, education, occupation, income Consider what appeals to people in the demographic of who typically visits your town. Make the experiences, products or services that these visitors want more available.
How long do they stay? How many people are typically in their groups? How much do they typically spend? Tailor local opportunities to the type of experience visitors are most likely to want. Research ways to increase the time or money visitors spend on existing offerings, or dream up some new ones. Use your imagination.
What attractions, services and features would they like that we don't offer now? Consider expanding existing businesses, or add new ones, so visitors get more of what they need and want.
How do tourists use their time in your town? Meet visitors in the places they go, and find ways to encourage them to visit more local stores and service providers. Make sure the places and people visitors interact with are friendly, helpful and encouraging.
How do visitors learn about your community? Consider expanding communication efforts, including websites and social media, traditional media, advertising, and word of mouth to encourage return visits and attract new visitors.
What do visitors think about the quality of your town? Seeing your town through visitors' eyes can guide local investments and improvements. These improvements will probably improve the quality of life for residents, too!

Seeing visitors already coming to your town "is a bird-in-the-hand opportunity for local economic development," Messer says. "The first step is to know your visitors; the second is to ensure that they have a positive and authentic experience, preferably an experience that leaves them wanting more."

Learn more

Tourism development starts with quality information. Extension and the Tourism Center can help with educational programs, consultations and research. To learn more:

1 Wilton, J. J., & Nickerson, N.P. (2006). Collecting and using visitor spending data. Journal of Travel Research, 45, 17-25.

Reviewed in 2011

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