Industry Focus: Tourism

North Dakota Tourism Industry Roundtable Discussion

Standing (L to R) | Terry Harzinski, Bismark-Mandan Convention and Visitor Bureau; Jude Iverson, Garrison Area Community Foundation; Nicki Weissman, Harvey Area Economic Development Inc.; Nina Sneider, Buffalo City Toursim; Pam Fosse, Jamestown Civic Center;
Randy Hatzenbuhler, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation; Douglas Hevenor, International Peace Garden; Charley Johnson, Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitor Bureau;  Seated (L to R) | Leona Odermann, Medora Area Convention and Visitor Bureau; Julie Rygg, Grand Forks Convention and Visitor Bureau; Wendy Howe, Minot Convention and Visitors Bureau; Terri Thiel, Dickinson Convention and Visitor Bureau; Suzie Kenner, Devils Lake Convention and Visitor Bureau; Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota Department of Commerce

Most active in the summer months, tourism in North Dakota has experienced the same uptick as the rest of the state. In fact, the challenges facing tourism in North Dakota include increasing the number of rooms available to visitors and managing the growth for the future. The state is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and a playground for those that enjoy nature. Recently, executives representing tourism in North Dakota met at the Department of Commerce’s office in Bismarck to discuss issues the industry will face in the future.

Connie Brennan, publisher and editor-in-chief of North Dakota Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings, sponsored by North Dakota’s Department of Commerce, are designed to bring industry leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their fields. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.

How do you promote tourism in your area?

Charley Johnson: We do a lot of our own advertising; our marketing team has been spending a lot of their time and attention on social media, Facebook in particular. We’ve gotten pitches from many different companies that if you give them thousands of dollars, they can enhance your social media presence. We’ve resisted that because the two gals that we have in that department think they can make some things happen on their own. We have our Facebook page, [and] micro-sites that come off of our website. They’re spending a lot of time enhancing our Facebook and other online presence.

Randy Hatzenbuhler: In Medora we’ve used almost all of the traditional medias. We’re similarly trying to get smarter at social media. But given what’s happening in North Dakota right now, we see a new good opportunity. It might come as a surprise, [but] Medora has a steady level of business in the summertime. We’ve recently added somebody on staff whose job is business development. We’ve not really been in that kind of direct face-to-face effort to book business in Medora, but we think there’s enough new businesses in North Dakota and enough new people that [there’s] an opportunity for us; a new way to go out and market Medora directly with a business development person.

Leona Odermann: Another thing with Medora that I feel we’re very lucky to have is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I know even Dickinson utilizes it because it’s a fantastic park. That’s the only national park that North Dakota has, and we definitely piggyback on that.

Nicki Weissman: I’m not fortunate enough to have a national park or a lot of these things because we’re a hundred miles northeast of here (Bismarck). Two years ago, there was not anything done with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. In fact, people in the city didn’t know what a convention and visitors’ bureau was and I’m still struggling. They think I’m a chamber. So, I not only have to educate the community, I have to educate everybody else around. But what we’re doing is social media, paper, magazines, tradeshows, anything that comes along that isn’t a huge amount of money, and we’re developing everything that we can.

Jude Iverson: We’re about the same size community, maybe even a little bit smaller, and we’re also in a very infant stage of what we would call outreach. We look to the state tourism department for leadership, and as a good role model for us. We tap their resources on occasion too for grant purposes. We just recently have also developed a Convention and Visitors Bureau. Over the years we have said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Garrison could be the next Medora.” We have grandiose plans because we also have a state park there. We have become something of a tourist destination and tourism is our second industry there.

Julie Rygg: I think what many of us are doing is adding the social media but not ignoring the traditional ways of advertising. The social media isn’t necessarily replacing those, we still have large age groups and target markets. Talking about the business development part of it, we have the leisure business, so for us it’s different than Medora. We’re looking at those Canadian visitors, but then we also have the convention business and athletic tournaments. For a state the population size of North Dakota, we have varied markets for tourism.

Terry Harzinski: A lot of people in Bismarck/Mandan, and throughout the state, don’t associate meetings and conventions with tourism, and that’s a big part of what we do here in Bismarck/Mandan. We get more publicity for a convention than anything else, and you’re always trying to [become] more known in the community. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I still run into people who don’t quite understand what we do. But, our industry is diversified in North Dakota. We do a lot of meetings and conventions. Delegates spend about $40 million a year in Bismarck/Mandan on average.

How does the state work with you to promote tourism?

Suzie Kenner: For Devils Lake, one of the most important things for us in partnering [with the state] is our sports shows. We use all the traditional media, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty and you get out there and talk one-on-one with your main customers, you get to tell them face-to-face about what they can experience in your area. Also being able to figure out [by] asking questions; where did you hear about Devils Lake, where did you see us? Getting that feedback on what shows they’re watching us on is the second side of the thing. That’s where we really partner with the state and we’re very appreciative in being able to do that.

Iverson: We recently started going to the Minneapolis show as a partner with the state. Leadership from the state is good for us; the direction they go has proven to be very successful, so we will follow.

Harzinski: I think Sara [Otte Coleman] and her staff have done a really wonderful job of offering us lots of different co-op opportunities. The meeting we were just in before coming down here, they went through all of the co-op advertising opportunities that we have: sport shows, advertising; print media, social media, radio, TV. It’s been a wonderful program [and] it makes our money go a lot further.

Hatzenbuhler: They provide data. It’s pretty hard for most of us to spend the dollars to get research and data that tells us who’s interested. You look forward to this because we know we’ve got a packet of information that we’ll go back and spend ten hours going through and reading every piece of it and saying, “What part can we piggyback on? What part of the information is on the website that we should be paying attention to?”

Rygg: If I want to partner on a certain project, I know they’ve looked into it and they’re showing me the data so I can make a decision. This packet that they supply us is so beneficial to our marketing programs.

Iverson: For small communities one of the best programs is [the] brochure rack for us. We don’t have a lot of dollars to spend, and through the help and association with the state, they have taught us to understand branding and marketing much better than we ever could have on our own. They have a statewide conference every year where there’s always something on marketing that you can learn. Through the brochure rack program, we get out material out there for a very reasonable price.

Nina Sneider: It’s about exposure. If we can partner with the state and they have a full-page ad and someone’s paging through and then they get a few pages [further] and they get another ad reinforcing North Dakota and another ad from Minot [or] Jamestown. We could not afford the kind of ads that we’re getting without partnering with the state.

Sara Otte Coleman: It’s such a cooperative industry. It’s different than the other roundtables you’ve done with other industries where this manufacturer might be competing with that manufacturer; you have more of a competitive environment. We know that when we’re marketing to Minneapolis, they aren’t coming just for one thing. As a state, I don’t have anything to sell, I can’t take their money, so it’s important for us to have the partners there to make the actual offers and to get the information out.

Doug Hevenor: There’s the out-of-state marketing they do through the FAM (familiarization) tours where they’ll bring in journalists and organizations to visit the state. We had the opportunity to have a great journalist from Germany come do an article on us that was in German and published throughout their industry. The Peace Garden is located in an area where there is a large Mennonite community of German-speaking people that were able to send that document out and they had never thought of the Peace Garden from a German perspective. That would have never happened; but through the partnership with North Dakota state, we were able to enter international markets and then springboard onto a local market from that.

How much of your tourism comes from out-of-state?

Otte Coleman: About 68 percent of our total tourism is out-of-state. That varies from destination to destination, but when you look at the total impact of visitors coming in, our most recent visitor study showed that 68 percent was out of state.

Does the state have a grant program?

Otte Coleman: We have three different grant programs: two for infrastructure, building new and expanding, one for marketing, and one for event marketing, specific to events and festivals.

Is there collaboration between North Dakota destinations?

Sneider: One of the things that I most appreciate on a case to case with all of these people is that Dickinson will refer people, “Be sure to stop in Jamestown.” There is no territorial protection going on here. What’s good for one is good for all.

Pam Fosse: We have a brochure rack set up in our lobby at the Civic Center that contains the visitor guides of all the neighboring communities and basically anybody in the state who’s willing to provide them, because once they get to the Civic Center, they’re already in Jamestown. Another valuable resource for us is the North Dakota State Tourism website with the drop-down menu of where to stay, what to do, what to eat. Sending [tourists] that direction has been really helpful with different people just stopping and looking for other community information.

Rygg: We have good full-service visitor centers. For ours, because we’re right on the state line, probably as well as Fargo’s, we have North Dakota and Minnesota information because people are coming both ways. We also have Canadian information. We feel like those people are in our community; they might just be stopping for a short time [but] if we can get them to stay for a meal or possibly stay overnight, that’s great. The more we service them while they’re in our visitor center, the happier they’re going to be [and] the more likely they’ll come back to our state. So, of course, we’re going to refer them to our partners. We don’t do ourselves any good if they say, “I’m going to Fargo, what information can you give me?” And we say, “Well, you’re in Grand Forks, we can’t help you.” I think from all of our standpoints, the visitor is always the first priority.

Fosse: It’s customer service they remember [and] report on far before they do the amenities or the property itself.

Harzinski: All of us in the industry understand that we have to keep people in this state as long as possible, so we know each other’s areas fairly well and we cross-sell each other.

Hatzenbuhler: I expect in the next few years as all these new rooms come on, there’s going to be a great opportunity for the communities to work together, especially during the summertime. We saw it this fall, we had a conference that we took care of way more people than we thought we could because people drove over to Dickinson for their room and came back out for their meeting.

What types of accommodations are there for conventions and large meetings?

Harzinski: In Bismarck, we have a convention center that has a 50,000 SF exhibit hall and a 10,000-seat arena and a number of breakout rooms for meetings. We’re trying to increase the size of it. We want to expand the exhibit hall by another 30,000 SF and build on to the existing facility and put a ballroom or a larger multi-purpose room that can be used for many different things. We have 2,915 hotel rooms now and we had three new properties open in the past month. We should have another 300 by next summer. At some point we’re going to get overbuilt, so we’re trying to prepare for the future. How are we going to fill these rooms? We think we can do it with more meetings, conventions and events.

Weissman: I’m happy to say that I’m getting a new hotel [because] there hasn’t been a hotel built in the city of Harvey for about 25 years or more. We have some small ones, but a lot of the railroad people take up those spaces. The convention area will be a small area. We wouldn’t be able to hold a hundred people, but we’ll be able to do smaller meetings.

Johnson: In Fargo/Moorhead we have some decent convention and meeting space. We have the Fargo Civic Auditorium, the Centennial Hall and we have the FargoDome, which is great. The only problem is, unlike Grand Forks, we don’t have a hotel attached to it. We have about 4,500 hotel rooms in Fargo/Moorhead and we have a few more coming. It would be great to have a hotel that was attached to one of the bigger convention spaces because that would really open the door for us to go after bigger things. Currently, we have the 4,500 hotel rooms, but the largest stand-alone hotel is the Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn has 310 rooms, and if you have a really big group, that’s not enough. A lot of the groups that we bring in need 500 or 600 [rooms], so you have to spread them around town if it’s going to work. We could attract a lot more if we had hotel space that was attached to, or nearby the convention center.

Rygg: We have the 200-room Canada Inn [in Grand Forks]. It’s attached to the Alerus Center, which is a mix between a conference center as well as an event center, so it’s also a concert arena and a football stadium. But we’re finding that when we’re holding a large convention at the Alerus Center, they need more rooms, and it just splits off. There aren’t any [additional] attached so hotels, so there’s more going up in that area. We waited a long time for that attached hotel and it makes a significant difference in your bookings.

Hatzenbuhler: We figured out a sweet spot, that we’re a niche for group business and conferences. We can comfortably take care of 350 to 400 people, and it’s accepted because it’s a small walking town, that we use a lot of different spaces. It doesn’t matter if they’re exactly attached because that’s the nature of the experience in Medora. We anticipate in the next few years to be able to do more.

Terry Thiel: We have one conference center, the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge, [it has] 5,000 SF plus some breakout rooms. We also have another one coming, the Astoria Hotel and Events Center, [which] will be 10,000 SF open, to be divided, and three additional breakout rooms and a full-service restaurant. Now we will have two facilities that will be competing for middle to larger size meetings and conventions. Our room size is increasing. Right now we’re at 1,252 rooms, and we’ll be just over 1,324 by the first part of January.

Iverson: Garrison being a small community, we have been fortunate enough to have had a new motel built in the last couple of years, and they had foresight to put in a small conference area. [It’s] about the size of most breakout rooms, but it suits our needs and it’s something we didn’t have before. We have seen more demand in the last couple years for lodging in our area as well, mostly due to the lake level being up and more tourism in our area. We’ve always been a back-door sister to Minot during their Hostfest because all of the lodging in our area will fill up during the Hostfest, so there is definitely a need for more lodging. I understand a lot of it is being sucked up by oil workers, but by marketing the way we have been, we’re going to keep our motel full and have need for more lodging space that will be completely outside any impact from energy development. Tourism is growing enough [that] it keeps us in the small communities alive.

Otte Coleman: Just as a point of reference, there’s about 4,400 more rooms we think are going to open in the next year or so statewide. We’ve opened about 1,300 already this year, If you look at the total since 2010, we’re talking about 7,400 new sleeping rooms, the growth is tremendous in terms of what we had. The other side of the growth we’re seeing is the air service. Everybody around the table can talk about expanded air service into our communities; that service will help attract meetings, conventions, and other business further out from our traditional drive markets.

Is there any concern of becoming overbuilt with the rapid growth?

Otte Coleman: Yeah, and that’s why we really need to have consistent messaging to our stakeholders, our legislators, city council that we have to keep the marketing levels consistent, even though they think we’re full. It’s imperative that we keep the marketing strong and consistent so that we continue to attract and sustain those hotels as more housing comes on line and more of the temporary workers are absorbed into housing.

What feedback are you getting from your visitors?

Odermann: They’re always amazed at what they find here.

Fosse: I think they don’t expect what they receive when they arrive. They find it’s just a hidden jewel. They don’t realize what North Dakota has to offer and it’s quite surprising, which makes the experience all that much better.

Harzinski: I think people really do enjoy the outdoors and the wide open spaces here. I’ve had so many people comment about how they feel like they have the whole place to themselves. We can handle a lot of tourists before it’s going to get very crowded.

Iverson: What we do here is provide an experience. It’s an experience that a lot of people think is awesome, and we’re pretty proud of what we can give people. [It] took us a lot of years to find out that we were worth something because we experience it everyday, but the outside world and the rest of the country, they come here now for the experience.

Thiel: I had a request for a packet and the gal said, “Oh, I’m bringing my three grandsons.” One day these three boys walk in with the gal and this young man was 12 years old and he takes his arms and opened them up and he said, “I love North Dakota.” I was just awestruck. It was amazing, they spent five days and we sent them up to Killdeer and Medora.

Kenner: I think one of the biggest advantages is word of mouth, especially in the outdoor industry. I can’t even count the amount of people that have come up to me and said, “I’m planning a trip to Devils Lake this year because so-and-so came last year and they caught their limit and had the best time of their life.” So, just that word of mouth is a huge advantage for us because people don’t really realize what North Dakota has to offer until they get here.

Wendy Howe: One of the things that is a benefit for Minot is Minot Air Force Base. We have 12,000 individuals that are residing on our Air Force base that are typically not from North Dakota. They have a lot of friends and family that are coming to visit and they tell us they are very surprised by what they see when they get here. Once they get here, they say, “Now we understand why you live here and why you wouldn’t want to leave. It’s so beautiful.” We hear that not only from the people that come to visit, but [from] the folks that live on the Air Force Base. It’s amazing to us how many come back and retire in our state.

Weissman: There are many people that come back year after year because they have enjoyed the hunting experience. In the Harvey area, we have 35,000 acres on the Lonetree Reservoir, so there’s a lot of space out there for them to have experiences.

How does the future look for tourism growth in North Dakota?

Fosse: For our area, one of the fastest-growing is the area of fitness or fitness development; the triathlons, swimming [and] walking. We have the Jamestown Reservoir, and the Pipestem Xterra and a lot of those different events coming up rapidly and expanding nationally. Some of them were rated nationally and they’ve been in existence for a couple of years.

Otte Coleman: I think that’s true statewide. Look at the Fargo Marathon, one of the fastest-growing marathons in the country. The Bismarck marathon is growing. All of the runs and walks are very successful [as well as] the Maah Daah Hey 100, a mountain biking event. I don’t think it’s unique to just Jamestown, it’s statewide.

Harzinski: Another growing area and an area for a lot of opportunity with the convention and visitor bureaus is in sports marketing. In our office we don’t have one person assigned only to sports marketing, but we do have one person who also does sports marketing in addition to other markets.

Johnson: We have a separate entity called the Fargo/Moorehead Athletic Commission and we have one guy that works just sports and it pays off. We have the Olympic curling trials coming to the Scheels Arena in Fargo in February. It’s because we have a facility that’s capable of hosting it and they’ve had experience there with hockey tournaments. That’s where our growth is going to be, in sporting events. If they ever get four more sheets of ice at the Scheels Arena, there will be a hockey tournament there every weekend, which is huge for us and our hotels. The other thing I see is the local businesses. Earlier this week, I was at the grand opening/dedication ceremony for a brand-new 90,000 SF John Deere Electronic Solutions building on the north side of 19 Avenue North in Fargo. John Deere has a thousand employees and the growth in Fargo/Moorhead in manufacturing is pretty strong and seems to keep going. People like doing business here and I think that’s a big niche that we’re going to be working with going forward; talking to the businesses in Fargo/Moorehead [and asking] what kind of conferences do you go to? Maybe we can bring some of them here.

Hatzenbuhler: For us in Medora there are two major opportunities. One is that our population is going to be 800,000 by 2025. That’s a huge new market just to educate people who are new to the area about the recreation opportunities that there are. The closest opportunity is right in our own backyard. The second is the fact that people know what North Dakota is now. We couldn’t have even imagined spending money in major markets seven years ago, but there are some opportunities in markets because there’s an awareness of what we are, where we are, and who we are now. We’ll try to pick off some of those larger markets that we never would have advertised in before.

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