For Laura Stengrim, one of the biggest challenges in her job as executive director of Visit Thief River Falls is adapting to rapid changes in marketing the city to tourists, while devising a promotional campaign for the newly formed Ice Fest to be launched in January.
Visit Thief River Falls has been in operation since 1984, though not always in that name. In 2018, the organization underwent a rebranding effort from The Thief River Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau (still its legal name) to conduct business under its current moniker. Stengrim, the only staff member, is tasked with promoting the city and its events, from Visit Thief River Falls’ office in the historic Carnegie Library, 102 Main Ave. North.
“I would say the major hurdle for me, in particular, trying to manage the organization as the sole staff, is staying on top of marketing trends and trying to utilize our limited resources to the best of our ability,” said Stengrim.
Attending marketing education conferences and seeking opportunities to network with staff at other CVB’s has helped Stengrim stay on top of the industry.
“There are always new trends in marketing; it’s an ever-changing industry,” said Stengrim. “I try my best to stay up on the trends and find ways to be creative with the limited budget that we have.”
The budget comes from a 3% lodging tax at the city's seven hotels and campground, a budget that has, according to Stengrim, recently increased by about 14%. This has allowed Visit Thief River Falls’ 2020 budget to increase to $125,000.
“When we see a lodging tax increase, we know that what we are doing to market our community is successful,” she said.
Stengrim has focused her efforts not only on placing advertising in traditional media outlets, such as the Carillon, a Manitoba newspaper, but on utilizing Facebook. Visit Thief River Falls’ spring/summer Facebook campaign reached more than 123,000 people and earned over 10,000 likes for the page, one of the campaign’s goals.
In addition, a Pandora Internet Radio Campaign, targeted at eastern North Dakota and southern Minnesota, reached more than 56,000 people. The organization also has worked with videographers to create promotional videos found on its Facebook page and website at www.visittrf.com.
Co-president of the 13-member board of Visit Thief River Falls and former interim mayor and City Council member Dave Carlson believes Stengrim’s approach to marketing is moving in the right direction.
“She (Stengrim) is completely right about that,” said Carlson. “It’s gone a long way from from slapping an ad in some periodicals and running an occasional radio spot, to getting out in the social media and getting on the internet, and then finding out how to navigate that through various partnerships we’ve established with businesses that do that sort of thing, so we can explore new ways to reach different markets and broader markets than what we did in the past.”
The largest group of visitors to Thief River Falls, more than 50%, are business travelers, according to Stengrim.
“It’s surprising at how many international travelers we get due to our large companies of Digi-Key electronics and Arctic Cat Inc.,” she said.
Thief River Falls, birthplace of Ralph Engelstad, also sees a large percentage of visitors attend sporting events in the town at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, a venue Stengrim calls a “world class high school hockey arena.” Ralph and Betty Engelstad donated $10 million for the construction of the arena in 2002.
Following sports travelers, Thief River Falls sees many other leisure travelers, including Canadian visitors who come to town for camping and outdoor activities. Snowmobile enthusiasts, waterfowl and deer hunters also make up a large number of visitors.
A newly created and upcoming event is called Ice Fest, a three-day festival running Jan. 10-12. The festival will feature activities from a kickoff party to candlelight snowshoeing, a vintage snowmobile ride, high school hockey games at the Ralph Engelstad Arena and snowblower races.
“Ice Fest is a brand new venture for us,” said Stengrim.
The event was born out of a desire to celebrate the rich hockey tradition of Minnesota, while having a local event that offers residents and visitors fun activities in a traditionally “slow” time of year.
“This has some really good potential,” said Carlson. “Obviously up in this part of the country, it’s nine months of winter and three months of bad snowmobiling .… It’s all got that winter-based thing to it, and, hopefully, it’ll grow.”
Stengrim is taking the lead in promoting and marketing the new event, from placing traditional and digital ads and creating posters for the event, working alongside the Chamber of Commerce. Organizers are hoping it will become an annual event and tourist draw for the town.
“This is year one, and we’ve got nothing but high hopes for this to unfold in a big event for northern Minnesota and the region here,” said Carlson.
For more information on Ice Fest, visit www.trfchamber.com/ice-fest-2020.