North Dakota Convention and Visitors Bureaus adjust to a "new normal"
For the first time in a long time, the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau is noticing a more consistent budget.
"It's leveling off," CVB director Julie Rygg said. "It's not improving, but it's leveling off."
The Grand Forks CVB relies almost exclusively on a 3 percent hotel tax visitors pay to stay in the city. Since the Canadian exchange rate dropped in 2015, fewer Canadians have been staying in the region, meaning less revenue for the CVB. After reporting a little over $1.2 million in 2014, the CVB was down to about $958,000 in 2017, only a little less than the nearly $990,000 it had the year before.
Now, things are starting to look up—or, forward at least, with this year's funds mirroring those of the last few. As of April 2018, the CVB reported just over $317,500 for the year so far, similar to the $309,000 it had by April 2017.
Under this "new normal" for the CVB, as Rygg described it, her bureau is relying more on social media. "We can spend less money to target the audience we're going after," she said. This year, the CVB will post new videos from a local film group highlighting Grand Forks attractions, and it's spending $60,000 over the course of 2018 on a new website.
For the Minot CVB, some 200 miles away, director Phyllis Burckhard said her bureau has experienced a similar drop in revenue. In 2012, Burckhard said the CVB had over $1 million, which fell to $518,000 in 2017.
"Right now, we are about 3 percent below what we projected," Burckhard said, adding she otherwise suspects things are flattening out. "It's really the same as Grand Forks. We're experiencing the same thing."
Similar to Grand Forks, the Minot CVB is going online with its own 20-second videos for Facebook, "just to showcase different businesses in our community," marketing director Rhianne Kuhn said.
In Devils Lake, CVB director Suzie Kenner said her colleague Tanner Cherney is posting more video promoting the area's fishing opportunities, covering location, weather and tactics for prospective visitors. "We don't have the big shopping opportunities like Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot," Kenner said. Instead, her CVB promotes outdoor opportunities, like ice fishing and hiking, which means Devils Lake tourism was less affected by the Canadian exchange rate drop. "We're driven by Mother Nature," Kenner said. "If we have bad weather, or bad ice, I'll see it in my numbers."
The Devils Lake CVB—smaller than both Grand Forks and Minot with only two staff members—has had fairly consistent numbers in recent history, Kenner said. Last fiscal year, from October 2016 to September 2017, she said the bureau had $370,000 from a 2 percent hotel tax and a 1 percent hotel-and-restaurant tax.
North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said her department encourages more CVBs to market online. Every year, Otte Coleman said North Dakota tourism hosts a summit for CVBs and any entity that markets a North Dakota community, to go over online tactics and social media options.
"We're always better if we're on the same page and we're cooperating," Otte Coleman said.
The state itself, funded by the Legislature instead of hotel taxes, employs social media tactics. Otte Coleman mentioned Twitter partnerships, like #RealAmerica to attract international travelers, and #MidwestAmerica for out-of-state visitors. "It's just about really making sure you're active," Otte Coleman said, and putting out "good, fresh content."
It's not like the state is asking CVBs to abandon traditional efforts, however—Otte Coleman said her department still devotes 34 percent of its advertising on television and 14 percent on magazines, compared to 30 percent on digital efforts.
In Devils Lake, Kenner said she only spends 16 percent of the CVB budget on digital and social media, compared to the 39 percent she still spends on television ads near outdoor programs, because that's where most of her Midwestern videos catch Devils Lake messages.
Otte Coleman said they're able to track how many people access tourism websites and then enter the state using Arrivalist, a data company that tracks how many devices access North Dakota Tourism pages, and which devices enter the state.
The department only has the funds to pay Arrivalist to analyze 30 percent of web traffic, but it's still showed Otte Coleman 14,862 devices came through this year, 14 percent more than the last.
And in both Grand Forks and Minot, CVBs notice hard copy visitor guides are still popular. Rygg from Grand Forks said her bureau spent $40,000 to $50,000 this year on producing visitor guides. Last year, after printing 55,000, Rygg said so many businesses, rest stations and individuals had requested guides that the CVB was "hanging on by the skins of our chins."
Beyond attracting first-time visitors, Rygg added the Grand Forks CVB strives to keep people coming back. For some events, Rygg said the CVB will have snacks and water bottles available for conference guests upon check in. It has supplies guests can borrow, like sporting equipment and inflatable arches.
"Because our primary responsibility is to that visitor," Rygg said.