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Opinions divided on St. Cloud impact of state's 66% tourism budget bump [St. Cloud Times, Minn. :: ]
[August 29, 2014]

Opinions divided on St. Cloud impact of state's 66% tourism budget bump [St. Cloud Times, Minn. :: ]

(St. Cloud Times (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 29--The first summer since the Legislature gave Minnesota's tourism marketing efforts a 66 percent budget bump is going into the books this weekend, and Explore Minnesota Tourism says it was a good one.

The agency this week issued the results of an end-of-summer survey of 222 Minnesota lodging businesses and said 48 percent of respondents reported higher occupancies than last year. More than half -- 53 percent -- said they had higher revenues as well.

The survey included hotels, resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds and vacation home rental agencies.

"These results show an encouraging trend for Minnesota tourism, and reflect a positive response to our new marketing efforts," John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, said in a statement released with the survey results.

The St. Cloud area tracked the trend of increased tourism business, according to Julie Lunning, executive director of the St. Cloud Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said lodging tax collections, an indicator of strength in visitor numbers, were up 7 percent this year through June as compared to the same six months a year earlier.

Lunning said several large events -- the state VFW and League of Minnesota Cities conventions, a quilting convention and show, and the Star of the North Games -- drove that June number.

Money matters In 2013, the state Legislature increased its appropriation for tourism marketing to $13.9 million.

It was a move touted as a way to boost an industry that already had $12.5 billion in gross sales in 2012 and generated 17 percent of the state's sales tax collections that year -- $811 million.

In Stearns County alone, the leisure and hospitality industry had $298 million in gross sales in 2012, up 8.6 percent from a year earlier. The total for Benton County that year was almost $55 million, and in Sherburne County approached $79 million.

At the time, Explore Minnesota Tourism estimated that every $1 spent on tourism promotion generated $84 in consumer spending and $8 in state and local taxes. The leisure sector accounted for 11 percent of nongovernment jobs in Minnesota.

The agency used the additional money from the Legislature to roll out a new marketing campaign with the slogan "Only in Minnesota." It also revamped the Explore Minnesota website with customized suggestions for travelers who describe themselves as in search of "artsy," "culinary," "outdoorsy," "romantic" or "family" vacations.

It also has put money into campaigns to promote business and sports travel in Minnesota.

Local effects vary Lunning said the budget increase for Explore Minnesota Tourism has helped statewide efforts that, in turn, helped St. Cloud market itself to visitors.

Representatives of Minnesota's large cities now travel together to industry events across the nation to market the state's sports facilities. And the similar Meet in Minnesota campaign brings representatives of six convention and visitors bureaus together for similar efforts to businesses and associations.

"We find that when we do things as a group we are really successful," Lunning said. "Their increased budget has really, really helped that along." Deb Middelstadt, co-owner of Heritage House Bed & Breakfast on St. Cloud's south side, agreed that business has been good this year, but said Explore Minnesota had little to do with it.

"We have had a good summer, a record-setting July," said Middelstadt, adding that she believes that while the state's marketing efforts may benefit large properties, they have "no impact on us at all." She said that more than 90 percent of Heritage House business comes from TripAdvisor, an online review and booking site. As its TripAdvisor rating has climbed into the top 10 percent of small lodging venues worldwide, that trend has accelerated, she said.

Heritage House, which has four guest rooms, has used listings on the Explore Minnesota website, but Middelstadt said they were less effective than other marketing efforts they've tried.

"A very small percentage of travelers go to those kinds of websites," she said. "They Google 'St. Cloud B&B.' As our TripAdvisor ratings rise, we show up first on that page." "It has become the way the world spins," she said.

Slow start, strong outlook The end-of-summer report noted that cool temperatures that lingered into early summer and high water delayed the season's start, particularly for campgrounds and resorts. About half of businesses said the late spring affected their business, while about 27 percent said high water was a problem for the bottom line.

But the rebound was strong. Smith Travel Research Inc. data showed a 76.3 percent occupancy statewide in July, better than the national rate of 73.6 percent. And bookings finally surpassed their pre-recession numbers.

Locally, occupancy at St. Cloud hotel rooms reached 68.2 percent in June, the best rate in at least nine years.

The outlook for fall among the businesses surveyed was strong. About 32 percent said they expect higher occupancy rates than last fall; about 20 percent predicted a decline.

AAA predicts 34.7 million Americans will travel this weekend, up 1.3 percent from last year. Spending by those travelers is expected to rise 3.8 percent from last year, outpacing income growth nationally. AAA attributes that trend to an overall stronger economy.

Daily poll How much did you travel this summer compared to last? Place your vote here. Find results in Saturday's Opinion page. Daily polls are nonscientific.

Follow Lisa Schwarz on Twitter @LisaSSchwarz. Get more travel news at

___ (c)2014 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Visit the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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