Extension Logo
Extension Logo
University of Minnesota Extension

What do visitors expect when they come to your community? You need to know

visitor research

Visitors come to your community with expectations about what they will do and see in your area. But what are those expectations exactly? Communities need to know in order to market their destination and keep their offerings fresh, so that visitors keep coming back.

"The profile collects information about where visitors are coming from, how long they stay, what they buy, how much they spend, and what they like to do when they visit."

One way to learn more about travelers' expectations is through a visitor profile. "A visitor profile identifies visitor characteristics in detail. With this information, communities can target tourism marketing more effectively and efficiently," says Cynthia Messer, former director of the UMN Tourism Center, an Extension Center focused on the needs of the tourism industry and community tourism initiatives. "The profile collects information about where visitors are coming from, how long they stay, what they buy, how much they spend, and what they like to do when they visit."

How a visitor profile works

A visitor profile can be done during a particular season, or it can cover an entire year. Surveyors who gather information for a profile hang out where visitors are likely to be—hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, outdoor recreation areas, retail stores, gas stations, festivals and events, attractions—and invite them to participate in the survey.

"We provide descriptive statistics from the surveys—travel purpose, number of people in the travel party, what visitors are spending their money on …"

Responses are compiled and analyzed before being presented to the community. "We provide descriptive statistics from the surveys — travel purpose, number of people in the travel party, what visitors are spending their money on — both as the number of people that chose that answer, as well as the overall percentage," explains Xinyi Qian, director of UMN Tourism Center. "I then ask the community what comparisons they'd like to know if the sample size is large enough to do so. For example, they may be interested in comparing the age of visitors across different seasons."

The Tourism Center also handles the many details of administering the visitor survey. "We manage all aspects of the survey work, including the hiring, training, scheduling, and site assignments of the surveyors," says Qian. "We also communicate with them at all of their locations and coordinate who is where when and for how long."

Using the information

"Without a comprehensive profile of your community, knowing where to put your message is only a guess," says Dan Erkkila, former UMN Tourism Center specialist. "The profile research informs marketing decisions so that you don't waste your precious travel marketing dollars talking to the wrong crowd."

But there's also an upside to getting to know the wrong crowd. "The flip side of that is that communities should think about who isn't coming to their area," says Erkkila. "That allows them to think about potential new visitors and to start planning on how to offer them something they might enjoy."

For Megan Christianson, executive director of Visit Grand Rapids, conducting a visitor profile of the Itasca area was long overdue. The community hadn't collected any visitor data within the past decade.

"… tourism had a more than $60 million impact on Itasca County and employed more than 1,200 people."

When she pitched the idea to potential collaborators — cities, counties, economic development authorities, chambers of commerce, and scenic byway groups— Christianson focused on specific talking points. "I explained the methodology, the purpose, and the benefits," she says. "I emphasized the economic impact numbers of tourism from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and Explore Minnesota Tourism. At the time, tourism had a more than $60 million impact on Itasca County and employed more than 1,200 people. I knew these numbers would be important for them to hear and would interest them in learning more about our visitors."

Results from the Itasca area visitor profile revealed important information about traveler drive patterns. "We didn't expect that some of our visitors were coming from as close as Duluth," says Christianson. "We thought Duluthians would go to the big city to vacation, but they value travel locations that are similar to where they live." Christianson says one reason for this may be that Duluth gets congested on the weekends with visitors of their own. Duluth residents can find solitude somewhere that still offers an abundance of outdoor recreation.

Another insight from the survey indicated what travelers do when visiting the Itasca area. "Dining was number one," explains Christianson. "Food has become a driver of travel planning, and people want to try local flare and cuisine."

Tips for conducting a visitor profile

Having recently gone through the process, Christianson suggests the following tips for conducting a visitor profile:

Encourage community members to help.

"Form a task force so you have other people to lean on," advises Christianson. "One person is needed to work directly with the Tourism Center and another to contact local businesses. You'll also need someone to communicate with funders and keep things moving forward."

Communicate the profile's purpose.

Christianson suggests notifying community members of your efforts early on, as well as issuing an initial press release. This helps the community understand the purpose and value of conducting a visitor profile.

Maximize the results.

"Use the study and don't let it sit on the shelf," Christianson says. "I've started using our results for our digital marketing because I can set geographic and demographic targets. I can also use psychographic information—like what their interests are, what they are doing when they come here—to really hone in on getting them here during our shoulder seasons better."

Plan when to request funding.

"Cities and counties typically look at their next fiscal year within the August timeframe," Christianson says. "Securing funding earlier rather than later is better."

Is a visitor profile right for your community?

If you're unsure whether or not to conduct a visitor profile, think back to when your community last gathered traveler data. "You want to have data that's less than five years old," says Messer. "Demographics change dramatically, so having up-to-date information is important."

Messer also says to consider the investment in a visitor profile as you would for any other large purchase. "Think of it this way — you wouldn't buy a car without doing research first. If you're going to spend a large amount of money on marketing, you want to be sure it's the most effective and efficient use of your tourism dollars."

Learn more

Author: Elyse Paxton

Reviewed in 2022

Share this page:
Page survey

© 2022 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.