BEMIDJI -- Now that the dust has settled from the Minnesota State Fair, Visit Bemidji’s Josh Peterson and Brady Laudon can breathe a sigh of relief and confidently say the visitor bureau’s debut was a grand success -- so much so, it’s already been invited back next year as a regular vendor.
“We were a destination there, and already we've had people from the fair stop by the Tourist Information Center who are up here on a trip for fall colors,” said Peterson, the executive director of Visit Bemidji. “The experience was just unbelievable and we’re now already seeing some return on our investment from the Minnesota State Fair.”
Throughout the 12-day event, thousands of fairgoers flocked to the Visit Bemidji booth, where they partook in an interactive green screen experience and got their hands on Bemidji-themed goodies to take home.
The booth hit the ground running within the first few days as word quickly spread among fairgoers about one of its specialty giveaway items: a buffalo plaid tote bag.
The item became so coveted and such a hot commodity that set times were designated each day to control bag distribution and ensure that the 10,000 bags lasted throughout the fair. Peterson said fairgoers would line up more than a half-hour in advance waiting for the next release of them.
At one point, Visit Bemidji booth volunteers gave away 550 bags in 37 minutes -- the fastest giveaway they experienced, Peterson said.
“It's fair to say that the 2021 state fair was the year of plaid. Everyone was wearing those plaid bags,” said Laudon, the assistant director of Visit Bemidji. “People were definitely coming and seeking us out. Women were going nuts for the bags and their husbands were waiting in line for half an hour so they could get one.”
The other items Visit Bemidji brought for giveaway were 5,000 Babe the Blue Ox foam horns, 5,000 Paul and Babe stick fans, 10,000 temporary tattoos and 5,000 Bemidji Lakes Area Guide magazines.
By the closing day of the fair, Peterson said the booth had been cleaned out of everything.
“Even though attendance to the fair was down by a million this year, it still brought in 1.3 million people,” Peterson said. “For us, that is the prospect of 1.3 million people having possibly been exposed to Bemidji in some way, shape or form.”
Additionally, just over 3,200 photos were taken by fairgoers using the booth’s green screen technology during the event. The most popular images people chose to take photos with were the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (both in the summer and during Christmas time) and the Mississippi River Headwaters.
“A couple even got married on the opening morning of the Minnesota State Fair and they came to our booth to do their wedding photos because they didn’t have a photographer,” Peterson said with a laugh.
“People also really wanted their family photos taken for their Christmas cards,” Laudon added.
Peterson and Laudon agreed that Visit Bemidji’s presence at the fair provided both first-time exposure and rediscovery of the town to fairgoers. They said they were often visited by BSU alumni who hadn’t been back to visit Bemidji in decades.
“We had a handful of people that didn't even know what Bemidji was, where it was located or couldn't even pronounce the name,” Peterson said. “But it was impressive to see that most everyone had a Bemidji story or a Bemidji connection of some kind.
A lot of the people that we talked with didn't realize how much Bemidji had grown and changed over the past 20 or 30 years, so for them to discover that sparked interest in them to explore Bemidji again.”
Already, Peterson and Laudon have begun planning for next year's Minnesota State Fair. While they want to keep most of their plans under wraps, Peterson and Laudon said they do expect to double their giveaways and create new interactive experiences using their green screen technology.
As Visit Bemidji is now competing in the ranks of larger regional visitor bureaus, they said it’s vital for them to “take it to the next level” and provide a “bigger and better” experience next year.
“Expect a lot of cool things to be coming,” Laudon said. “When we show people that we live and breathe Bemidji, that we actually live here and we're genuine about our love for our town, that speaks volumes to people.”