by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona's tourism promotion agency, Visit Winona, has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years, thanks in part to a burgeoning budget for recruiting and welcoming visitors. A city-run lodging tax makes up the bulk of the tourism organization's budget and that has grown rapidly, increasing by 45 percent from approximately $267,000 in 2010 to an estimated $388,500 this year. Visit Winona has used that money to hire staff and contractors, advertise more aggressively, pitch stories ideas to travel writers, launch social media blitzes, and amass a collection of photos and other content on Winona's beautiful sights, fun events, fascinating history, and great doughnuts.
This time last year, Visit Winona leaders had projected 2015 lodging taxes to dip slightly — due in part to the closure of Winona hotels — but they kept on climbing. That is good news for the hotel industry and for Visit Winona's budget. At the end of this year, Visit Winona will have more money in reserves than it uses in a full year. Director Pat Mutter proposed a plan for using those reserves to invest in new equipment and more marketing. Meanwhile, on Monday night, the Winona City Council will vote on a new contract between the city and the convention and visitors bureau. The new contract, proposed by Winona City Manager Judy Bodway, would tighten the city's controls on how Visit Winona spends money.
"It's just been a rising tide of all the things that Winona is getting known for," Mutter said. Mutter started at Visit Winona in 2002, back when the convention and visitors bureau was an arm of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce and back before many of the festivals that now draw thousands to Winona were in their infancy or not yet conceived. "In those days, Winona really wasn't a destination," Mutter said. "It wasn't as well known in the public eye and it wasn't as well known as a place to go." Since then, what Winona has to offer has expanded tremendously, and the tourism promotion business has changed a lot, too, Mutter said.
"Most beautiful county in Minnesota? We think so," Visit Winona posted on its Facebook page last Wednesday. Below was a photo of the Mississippi River Valley and a link to a TheCultureTrip.com article on the 10 most beautiful counties on Minnesota. Winona County is second on the list.
"The trends in marketing and promotion have changed," Mutter said. "Social media has played a huge huge role and I think we really jumped on it at the right time." There are images of baby deer nestled in the grass and Dakota Gathering dancers spinning around on Visit Winona's Pintrest page. The agency puts out scores of tweets on local music events, posts YouTube videos of scenic montages, and brags about travel media coverage on Facebook. The agency has gotten more savvy on what kind of social media posts will attract the most attention. Appealing to people who grew up, went to college, or used to live in Winona and want to come back for a visit is a big market, Mutter said.
In-print promotion is still a big part of what Visit Winona does and what attracts visitors. The agency printed 35,000 copies of its visitor guide this year and nearly ran out. Mutter and her staff buy ads in traditional media and have stepped up their efforts to get "earned media" coverage — convincing travel magazines, arts and culture journalists, and outdoors writers that what is happening in Winona is something they need to cover.
Earned media is something arts organizations and other entities work on for themselves, as well, and Winona has enjoyed a streak of attention from Metro area media. This year, Minnesota Monthly and MinnPost praised the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Minnesota Public Radio highlighted historic redevelopment projects in downtown Winona, and City Pages honored Mid West Music Fest, to name a few.
At the same time the marketing industry has been changing, Visit Winona has been getting much more money to work with these days, thanks to rising hotel business. The bulk of Visit Winona spending goes to staff and consultants and to marketing, including ad purchases and the organization's website. The organization has nearly doubled its spending on staff since 2012. Spending on its website has nearly tripled from a budgeted $ 3,500 in 2012 to $8,750 in 2015 — the organization recently underwent a website redesign. Advertising spending has gone down from around $140,000 in 2012 to around $90,000 this year, but as part of a plan to use the organization's surplus and reserves, Mutter plans to spend around $110,000 on advertising next year.
Mutter will need City Council approval for that plan under a new contract proposed by Bodway. The existing contract between the city and the tourism bureau states that Visit Winona's annual budget "shall be submitted to the city for review by the City Council." The proposed contract would require City Council approval before any money can be spent. Bodway said that the current contract effectively requires City Council approval, too, but that the new one will make that requirement more explicit. "I think the wording has been tightened on that one," she said. Bodway stated that there was never a disagreement between the city and Visit Winona on whether council approval was required. In recent years, the council has never rejected a Visit Winona budget and council members have not publicly requested changes.
Also, the new contract would require city manager approval of any subcontract over $10,000. In recent years, Visit Winona has increased its use of independent contractors, including photographers. The current contract has no such requirement for city manager approval for independent contractors. "The reason for that is that the city is responsible to make sure that the money is going where it's supposed to be going, which is promotion and marketing of the community and we just want to make sure that that continues to happen," Bodway said. Was anything wrong with the subcontracting Visit Winona has done? No, Bodway said. She continued, "We have an agreement with [Visit Winona] and so, if they subcontract out all their work, we want to know that, we want to be a part of that. So it's just tightening it up a little bit more."
The City Council will meet to vote on the new contract Monday, December 21, at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall, 207 Lafayette Street.