Reaching new travelers: Regional tourism departments pair up with influencers to showcase their states

Working with influencers isn’t new for regional state tourism departments, but they say they are being more selective about who they choose to work with and what audiences they are trying to reach.

Cory Lee travels the nature paths at the Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, during his 2022 trip to the state. Explore Minnesota worked with Lee to highlight the accessibility of some tourist locations in the state, and Lee posted photos and wrote about his experience on both his own website and the state’s tourism page. (Photo credit:<b> </b>Cory Lee via Explore Minnesota.)

Cory Lee has traveled to seven continents and more than 40 countries with the goal of helping wheelchair users travel the world. He has 32,000 followers on Instagram.

So when Explore Minnesota was looking to show off the state’s wheelchair-accessible tourist destinations, they partnered with Lee for a social media campaign.

Lee spent several days in Minnesota, visiting Legacy of the Lakes Museum and downtown shops in Alexandria, where he raved about the smooth curb cuts, as well as Westwood Hills Nature Center and the Minnesota Science Museum. Lee then posted about his experiences on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and wrote about it on his website and for a post on Explore Minnesota’s website.

“This is honestly one of the best accessible trail systems I’ve ever encountered,” Lee said on an Instagram post about Westwood Hills.

For Explore Minnesota, working with influencers on social media helps the tourism department reach diverse and younger audiences who are keen on seeing authenticity in posts.


“We asked (Cory) to visit some accessible sites in our state and share with his followers about how you can have an accessible vacation in Minnesota,” Explore Minnesota Communications Director Amy Barrett said. “When it comes from Cory, who actually has to get around in a wheelchair, it has a lot more credibility. That really helps us reach a target audience.”

Working with influencers isn’t new for regional state tourism departments, but they say they are being more selective about who they choose to work with and what audiences they are trying to reach.

South Dakota teamed up with Irene Ogeto, who calls herself the Black Hiking Queen, and The Mom Trotter (Karen Akpan), who is the founder of the Black Kids Do Travel organization, in 2022 to showcase the state’s tourism scenes to a diverse audience.

Ogeto posted photos and Instagram reels of her hiking in the Black Hills and Wind Cave National Park, and Akpo and her family visited Crazy Horse and Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, among other experiences.

The MomTrotter Influencer.png
Karen Akpan and her family toured Rapid City and the Black Hills during a trip in conjunction with Travel South Dakota in 2022. (Photo credit: TheMomTrotter via Instagram)

“We just introduced a new strategic plan to reach a more diverse group of audiences,” South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said. “You will see us focus on influencers — Asian American, Latino American and others — to demonstrate that this is a destination that will be welcoming and you are going to have an amazing time.”

Hagen said authenticity is key when it comes to their influencer partnerships. That means no super-polished video or photos. The tourism department wants to see influencers be themselves and experience the sites naturally.

“People want to see authenticity in your marketing,” he said. “They want to see, what can I experience, what can I see and do when I get to this state or region? What is authentic about (our state)? And reaching them in a transparent and real way — nothing that is overly produced.”

When Explore Minnesota aimed to promote the 50th anniversary of the Twin Cities LGBTQ+ festival, they called on Justine and Sam of the Wanderful Wives to chronicle their experience visiting the event, the city and the parade.


“So thrilled to be working with an organization and state that values the queer community,” they wrote on one post.

Justine and Sam Goldon of the Wanderful Wives visited the 50th university of the LGTBQ+ festival in Minneapolis and other sites in the Twin Cities in a partnership with Explore Minnesota. (Photo credit: WanderfulWives via Instagram)

They then wrote an article that was used in the Explore Minnesota magazine.

North Dakota worked with LGBT advocate and travel blogger and journalist Mikah Meyer to showcase the state in 2022. He first visited the state in 2017 as part of his record-breaking national parks tour and returned in 2022 to work with Travel North Dakota.

Meyer, who has 67,000 followers on Instagram, “uses travel to advocate for others and to take audiences on journeys that inspire them to live ‘beyond convention,’” according to his website.

Mikah Meyer, a social media influencer and journalist who writes about his experiences traveling as a gay man, visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2022 in conjunction with Travel North Dakota. He said the park is one of his favorite national parks. (Photo credit: Travel North Dakota via Instagram)

Sara Otte Coleman, director of tourism and marketing for North Dakota Department of Commerce, said the state has been teaming up with influencers for almost a decade.

“For us, it’s about reaching that unique audience,” she said. “Reaching new audiences in a way that would be credible and a little more organic than a paid advertisement.”

How teaming up with influencers works

All three regional tourism departments said what they spend on influencer marketing varies depending on the person. Generally, states will pay all expenses associated with the travel and sometimes additional fees in exchange for a set amount of social media posts from the visitor.

Other times, tourism departments have the influencer contribute blog posts to their website.


Expedition Kristen has teamed up with both Minnesota and North Dakota.

On her blog, she wrote about 10 dog-friendly things to do in Fargo, the 17 best museums to see in Minnesota and hidden gems in Duluth, among others posts.

Travel North Dakota says its 2022 influencer campaign reached an audience of 108,000 people and secured 725,000 impressions with 80,000 social media engagements. Otte Coleman said the state operates on a biennial budget for its media trip and influencer expenses. The most recent budget is $50,000.

She said the tourism department looks at several deciding factors when picking an influencer. What is their audience? How many followers do they have? How does North Dakota’s tourism goal align with what the influencer is producing?

“They have been important to us in reaching new and younger audiences,” she said. “We are really careful about who we select. We may select an influencer who might not have a huge audience, but it opens the doors to a newer audience.”

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