High tech tourism: Devils Lake Tourism uses GPS data to bring visitors to the area

Datafy allows people in the tourism industry — like Suzie Kenner, executive director of Devils Lake Tourism — to see who is coming to visit and where they are spending their time and money while visiting.

Ice-fishing tournament
Thousands of people converge on the ice of Devils Lake — as they do every year on the last Saturday in January — for the Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department's ice fishing tournament.
Herald file photo
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DEVILS LAKE — Suzie Kenner, executive director of Devils Lake Tourism, knows a lot about who is visiting Devils Lake and what they are there to see. It's not just intuition.

She gains this important insight from Datafy, a tech service that tracks visitors using GPS data from cell phones and spending data from state sales tax and credit card transactions.

Similar tracking efforts have been made elsewhere, including in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls , yet Kenner says most people don't realize how strategic the tourism industry is.

“Really, we’re targeting where we think it’ll best be utilized. Our money will be spent most wisely, so just having that data to back up what we’re doing or giving us insight into where we should be spending our money is really helpful,” she said.

Datafy allows people in the tourism industry to see who is coming to visit and where they are spending their time and money while visiting. She does not have access to private information of visitors, but GPS data does allow her to see what states people are from and what locations they visit in Devils Lake.


“It’s just a sampling of data because it can really only track the people that have their location services on,” she said.


But even a sampling allows Kenner to access valuable information about the visitors who come to Devils Lake.

Before signing on with Datafy, Kenner relied on information from Google Analytics, allowing her to track where people were when they visited her entity's website.

“It gives us a great sampling of who’s interested in Devils Lake, but not necessarily who is coming here,” she said.

Devils Lake Tourism started using Datafy in 2021, but has access to information as far back as 2018, giving her insight into trends in visitors to the region, including how many in-state and out-of-state visitors come each year, where most visitors travel from, the days of the week that are most popular for visitors and the busiest times of the year.

Kenner gets information by tracking certain locations in Devils Lake, which collects GPS data in specific places in the city. Kenner tracks the lake, the city as a whole, resorts near the city, the downtown area, and attractions like Burdick Arena and Roosevelt Park. Some of the locations she tracks overlap, but she can also isolate areas for more specific information.

Kenner used Roosevelt Park as an example. In 2020, Fort Totten Little Theatre started holding performances at Roosevelt Park to have an open-air venue during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic. It held its 2021 show in the park as well. Kenner can isolate data for the park and for certain months to see how many visitors the performances brought in.

“I was able to pull some data for Roosevelt Park for the month of July, because that’s when they have the play, back to 2018 through 2021, and was able to show that the park numbers quadrupled in 2021 versus 2018,” she said.


Knowing where people are traveling from and what they are doing while in Devils Lake helps Kenner target advertising and marketing efforts.

Specific geographic regions of the country can be targeted for advertising, based on the data. In 2021, the top out-of-state markets for tourism were Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and Indiana. Kenner said she recently noticed the city was attracting more visitors from Iowa, so she knows that marketing Devils Lake to people in that state might draw more people.

“We’ve put some marketing dollars toward different locations where we see a spike of people coming here,” she said.

Spending data allows Kenner to pinpoint events that have an economic impact on Devils Lake, such as the annual Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department Ice Fishing Tournament.

Data from 2019 and 2020 tournament weekends shows that visitors coming from more than 50 miles away spent $990,823 and $1,022,823, respectively, but in 2021, when the tournament was canceled due to warm weather, visitors spent $347,686.

Kenner is still waiting for spending data from this year’s tournament.

And the data’s uses go beyond attracting tourists. Kenner says moving forward, she hopes to partner with local businesses and organizations to use the data.

“I’ve got downtown GPS so if there are any businesses that are interested in coming to Devils Lake and need some data for a business plan for opening up a business, they can sit down and we can pull some different data for them on that,” she said.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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