"What do you do for fun around here?" When visitors come to your town, replies to this question can make or break their impression of your community. If you want visitors to come back again — and say nice things about your town to others who might come, too — you need to have some good answers at the ready.
That means offering things to see and do that are either unique (one of a kind) or extraordinary (other towns might have them, but yours is better). Effective community tourism development aims to give visitors an authentic, high-quality experience that they will remember for a long time.
As Hank Todd of Hank Todd Solutions Group in St. Paul says, "Anybody that thinks back, if they've gone on a trip and had a great experience and found it memorable — their feeling about that place stays with them a long time."
The core of assessment is an inventory of existing and potential attractions that might draw tourists to a community. Places of natural and scenic significance should go on the list, of course. Count things like lakes, beaches, forests, prairies, and craggy cliffs — as well as outdoor recreational activities that can be pursued in these natural settings.
"But don't stop there," warns Cynthia Messer, Extension educator with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center. "Attractions also include intangibles, such as friendly service, a safe environment, clean air or a unique history and/or culture. These assets are valuable — not just to visitors but to residents, too."
The city of Lindstrom, for example, worked with the Tourism Center's Tourism Assessment Program (TAP) in 2008 to conduct an inventory of the town's assets, especially those related to its distinctive Swedish history and culture. Since then, Lindstrom — located 35 miles north of the Twin Cities near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border — has been implementing TAP recommendations to attract more visitors and strengthen its previously established image as "Little Sweden."
When conducting a tourism inventory, it's also important to look beyond your town's population sign. Travelers don't consider political boundaries when they explore, and nearby attractions and services can be leveraged to improve visitors' experiences.
The Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (RDC) in western Minnesota has taken this advice to heart. "Not any one of our towns has enough assets or financial resources to really go it alone, so [we always ask] 'How can we work on something that benefits everybody?'" says Dawn Hegland, executive director of the commission.
Because the commission has taken a collaborative approach to tourism development, visitors to the five-county region can have experiences that are unique to Southwest Minnesota. They can visit local farms and orchards. They can meander down highways and by-ways on a self-guided tour of more than 30 local artists' studios. The RDC worked with the Tourism Center on these agri-tourism and art crawl projects, which expand tourism well beyond the boundaries of any one town.
With a broad perspective of community, start counting the things in your area that will appeal to visitors, including:
- Beautiful or intriguing scenes in nature, including geology and wildlife;
- Fun things to do outdoors;
- Places to get to know local history and culture;
- Chances to see and interact with local art and artists;
- Festivals and events that celebrate local history, culture, harvest time, foods, music, or celebrities;
- Built attractions, such as monuments, amusement parks, zoos, or theme parks; and
- Local businesses and retail stores where visitors can shop or be pampered.
Some amenities function as the primary reason visitors come to an area. For example, bed and breakfast inns are often an attraction, as well as a lodging choice. Even transportation modes can attract visitors. Bicycle and snowmobile trails, as well as unusual means of transport — such as ferryboats, carriage rides, or excursion trains — are a few examples.
"You really need to put yourself in your visitors' shoes," Messer says. "Why would they want to come to your community? What would be appealing or interesting enough to get them to travel your way? And what would make them stay awhile longer?"
As you count assets, don't forget that the people who live in your town can help. Involving them in conducting an inventory can increase the level of support that tourism development gets from the community.
Everyone in town can help with brainstorming. Reach out to local residents from a variety of incomes, ethnicities and ages to volunteer to help identify attractions. And don't forget to include youth and young adults in tourism planning. They are the future, and they often have the same sense of adventure that tourists do.
Residents have inside information about things to see and do that might appeal to visitors — even "everyday" things, such as church dinners and the Main Street café where everybody goes for lunch. Residents also know all about the local economy, which can be a source of experience attractions — such as tours of farms and farmers' markets, manufacturing plants, mines, cheese factories, wineries and more.
Farm tours and other agriculture-based experiences often have special appeal to urban residents, because, as Dawn Hegland notes, "A lot of people aren't connected to where their food comes from. Many people have moved from the country to the city and don't really have connections to farms anymore."
Visitors to the Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls get a close-up connection to where their wine is coming from by picking their own grapes, then following them into the winery to see where they ultimately will be bottled. "People take a lot of ownership in that," says winery owner Maureen Maloney. "And they want to know what other local things are available to do, too."
There are more aspects of assessing tourism potential too numerous to get into here. For example, after conducting an inventory of attractions, you will need to evaluate and prioritize them based on their quality, authenticity, uniqueness or extraordinary value, ability to generate multiple activities, and their drawing power. Extension resources like those listed below can help you through this process.
And remember — as you develop and promote your attractions, always consider things from the visitor's viewpoint. That way, you will have some good answers when visitors ask, "What do you do around here for fun?"
Tourism development starts with quality information. Extension and the Tourism Center can help with educational programs, consultations and research. To learn more:
- Purchase the Community Tourism Development Manual, which applies theory to real life — delivering the essentials of planning, developing and managing tourist destinations from a community standpoint. Based on extensive research, this 250-page manual takes you step-by-step through the process of developing local tourism with narrative text, case studies and worksheets.
- Review information on the Tourism Center website, including Research Reports.
- Talk to your local Extension educator about helping your community discover its tourism potential through the Tourism Assessment Program.
- Take advantage of programs offered by the Extension Center for Community Vitality.
Reviewed in 2011