Somewhere north of Minneapolis, Lake Wobegon beckons -- an imaginary town more real to many people than places that are actually on the map. What gives this town a quality that holds thousands of radio listeners spellbound each week are its stories. One week it's two neighbors in a fierce competition for the first tomatoes of the season, and another it's the rituals of ice fishing. Garrison Keillor knows that every place has its stories, and as humans and travelers we yearn to connect with them.
In a now-famous quote, Keillor said of this yearning, "people don't come to America for our airports, people don't come to America for our hotels, or the recreation facilities....They come for our culture: high culture, low culture, middle culture, right, left, real or imagined -- they come here to see America." Although you won't find Lake Wobegon, there are hundreds of small towns dotting the Minnesota landscape. Twenty scenic byways serve as metaphorical Main Streets tying these communities together.
Scenic byways are designed to slow you down so you can see, hear and discover something new. They create a natural fit for cultural tourism and inspired the Minnesota State Arts Board and four other agencies -- the Minnesota Office of Tourism, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources -- to assist communities in turning this raw material into stories. Underwriting their efforts were funds from the Federal Highway Administration National Scenic Byways program.
Culture As a Destination
Minnesota can be an inclement place whose long winters are a magnet for snowmobilers, ice fisherman and cross-country skiers. Yet Minnesota tourism officials have realized that cultural tourism is "weatherproof." Instead of being stranded by rain in their tents, hikers can go to a museum; skiers without snow can take a gallery walk. Culture, as Keillor suggests, is the destination -- it's the story of Fergus Falls and its Wurlizer organ; of why Frontenac was once called the "Newport of the Northwest" or why Duluth once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else. However, knowing these tidbits is one thing; inducing visitors to stop for the night is another.
The art of cultural tourism storytelling involves a lot of hard work. The first step involves people getting to know each other and each other's stories. Consequently, the Arts Board and its four partners designed and conducted a series of five "readiness" workshops around the state. Each workshop was to prepare the byway communities for the summer travel season by introducing them to the idea of cultural tourism and the benefits of byways, as well as to help communities and organizations plan, prepare and position themselves for cultural tourism. Each agency either teamed with another or individually led a presentation or exercise during the workshop.
Arts Board Executive Director Robert Booker developed a marketing and customer service presentation, which he describes as a "storybook of my own vacations and the best practices I've encountered as a visitor. Although every hotel can't be a five-star resort, every hospitality business can put in place good customer service, which benefits the bottom line since people will spend ten percent more with good service."
Residents Map Their Special Places
One of the most important aspects of these workshops, according to Booker, is that state agency collaboration sparks local level participation so that people get to know each other and work together. A "mapping" exercise directed at engaging participants was conducted by state historical society and transportation agency representatives. In the exercise, large maps were spread out and crayons, stickers and markers provided so that participants could indicate the not-to-miss locations on the byways -- best gallery, best view, best place for a Bloody Mary, etc. Each person contributed ideas; then, the group discussed how to market their list of the best natural, cultural and historic places and package them as tours.
Some of the ideas and stories that emerged from the workshop have been incorporated in a 20-page promotional booklet that will be inserted into two regional travel magazines. "By going directly to the communities with the workshops," says Colleen Tollefson of the Minnesota Office of Tourism, "we are creating a product in its natural setting, developed locally not only for visitors, but also for residents. This process enhances the real-life quality that helps make these areas destinations, and allows residents an opportunity to capture some of the return in tourism dollars from this advertising campaign."
Executive Director Booker further notes the connection between the residents, places and culture. "I'm always amazed by these communities and their ability to naturally value each other's talent and skills. The scenic byways partnership draws on this talent to package the legends, lore, tall tales and special places unique to each area."
Writer and Editor: Kimber Craine Associate Editor: Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design Sources: Minnesota State Arts Board, Minnesota Office of Tourism, A Prairie Home Companion Photos: Courtesy of the Minnesota Office of Tourism