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Visit Bemidji details campaign success to Bemidji City Council

On Monday, Oct. 18, Visit Bemidji’s executive director Josh Peterson and assistant director Brady Laudon announced to the Bemidji City Council that its campaign efforts had not been in vain, having succeeded in breaking a lodging tax record and bringing in a record number of visitors to Bemidji since the beginning of the year.

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After a year of closure, Bemidji’s Tourist Information Center reopened its doors Memorial Day weekend, attracting a record number of visitors throughout the summer. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Last January, Visit Bemidji rolled out an innovative rebranding and marketing campaign geared toward standing out among fellow competitors and increasing tourism to the Bemidji area by infiltrating previously untapped traveler markets in the Midwest.

But, only a few months after the campaign’s launch, the COVID-19 pandemic created unforeseen hiccups in the travel industry on both a local and international scale. While Bemidji was no exception to this, the visitor bureau remained dedicated to forging the town’s place as a standout and desirable destination in northern Minnesota, so it powered on with its campaign while many other visitor bureaus scaled back.

On Monday, Oct. 18, Visit Bemidji’s executive director Josh Peterson and assistant director Brady Laudon announced to the Bemidji City Council that its campaign efforts had not been in vain, having succeeded in breaking a lodging tax record and bringing in a record number of visitors to Bemidji since the beginning of the year.

"We were seeing a huge influx of tourists wanting to come up to Bemidji and be able to social distance while being outdoors and being able to work remotely," Laudon said.

Through a partnership with the city and the Parks and Recreation Department, Visit Bemidji was able to reopen the Tourist Information Center in May after its closure last year. From June to September, the visitor bureau found that nearly 31,000 visitors had individual one-on-one contact with a TIC visitor representative. And from June to August, the TIC’s door counter found 132,322 visitors came into the building.

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“Just having that building open and having it as our welcome center has been a great asset to Bemidji and a great tool for us to help get people to come back,” Peterson said. “The numbers don’t lie, and it has absolutely blown us away.”

Rebranding efforts

When Peterson entered his role at Visit Bemidji in mid-2019, the bureau’s marketing was done through an outside agency, and about a fifth of its budget was allocated to it.

He said much of the marketing had been outdated and lacked consistency, so he began looking at how he and Laudon could utilize their skills to produce and oversee the bureau’s marketing content in-house. They devised a four-year-long marketing plan dubbed “One Step Further,” and rebranding Visit Bemidji was their first step.

“In 2019, Visit Bemidji was operating under seven different logos with no consistency, no individual identity of its own,” Peterson said.

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Rebranding Visit Bemidji was the first step in its “One Step Further” marketing plan. The visitor bureau had previously operated under seven different logos, but Josh Peterson consulted with industry experts to design an official one that represented Bemidji. Contributed

He worked with various experts in the industry to come up with a new Visit Bemidji logo, which now features an outline of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox set behind Visit Bemidji’s name. The word Bemidji is colored with a “Babe blue” and includes the international symbol for river (since Bemidji is the First City on the Mississippi) running along the letter B.

On the bottom of the logo is the slogan “One Step Further.”

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“We tried to incorporate a little bit of old and a little bit of new, and also change up our slogan to have more of a tagline,” Peterson said. “Grammatically, it should be One Step Farther but we made it One Step Further because it’s also our greatest challenge. We’re one step further along in technology, we’re one step further along in culture, we’re one step further along in the arts.”

Saturating the market

In 2017, Visit Bemidji contracted with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center to conduct a visitor profile survey from winter 2017 to fall 2018.

According to Peterson, the survey found that most visitors to Bemidji come from areas within a 200-mile radius of town. However, there was a clear issue with Bemidji attracting travelers from the Twin Cities.

“So we strategically targeted the Twin Cities metro,” Peterson said. “Saturating the market was the main plan.”

They took out ads for Visit Bemidji in every major publication in the Twin Cities, including Minnesota Monthly, Minnesota Twins and Vikings publications, as well as the LGBTQ magazine Lavender . Peterson said Visit Bemidji’s collaboration with Lavender led them to discover that Bemidji was the first greater Minnesota city to advertise with the magazine.

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To saturate the Twin Cities market with the Visit Bemidji name, ads were placed in popular publications there, including the LGBTQ magazine Lavender. Contributed

“It has led to us having received dozens of emails, phone calls and many comments at the Minnesota State Fair thanking us for taking that step and including (the LGBTQ community) in our marketing campaign,” Peterson said.

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In September, Peterson told the Pioneer that Visit Bemidji's presence at the State Fair was a triumph , as 1.3 million people were potentially exposed to its name.

In further saturating the Twin Cities market, Visit Bemidji rolled out network television ads on CBS, which also ran online and garnered about 70,000 viewer impressions with a click rate of 85 to 98%. Additionally, the visitor bureau partnered with iHeart Radio to create a series of radio commercials, which have been played during various sporting events.

“The reach was absolutely incredible and continues to grow,” Peterson said.

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Last year, Visit Bemidji executive director Josh Peterson, right, and his assistant director Brady Laudon launched an innovative rebranding and marketing campaign for the visitor bureau, which was geared toward standing out among fellow competitors and increasing tourism to the Bemidji area by infiltrating previously untapped traveler markets in the Midwest. Contributed

Local initiatives

Upon starting the campaign, both Peterson and Laudon realized they had their work cut out for them. There was little to no photography or video that depicted the progressive town they were trying to sell to travelers, nor did they have a standout social media presence.

“One thing that we discovered when I started is we did not have a library of images, so we had to start from scratch in building our library and building our images,” Peterson said. “We wanted to be bold, and we wanted the photos to live and breathe for themselves.”

So they revamped their print and digital work and invested in a drone to capture the beauty of Bemidji from an aerial perspective.

“We’re using drones, which we never used in the past in our marketing,” Laudon said. “It has been instrumental in our success in gathering new audiences.”

They also took to social media, regularly posting content and interacting with their audience to drive engagement. When Explore Minnesota launched its popular #OnlyinMN monument, Peterson and Laudon were inspired to create a #Bemidji one with colorized lighting effects.

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When Explore Minnesota launched its popular #OnlyinMN monument, Visit Bemidji's Josh Peterson and Brady Laudon were inspired to create a #Bemidji one with colorized lighting effects. Throughout the year, the #Bemidji monument has been moved all over town, showing up at places like the Beltrami County Fairgrounds, BSU and the Sanford Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Throughout the year, the #Bemidji monument has moved all over town, showing up at places like the Beltrami County Fairgrounds, BSU and the Sanford Center.

According to Laudon, #Bemidji has now been used about 63,800 times on Instagram and about 1,700 times on Facebook. Peterson said its renown even extended to Gov. Walz, who reached out to Visit Bemidji and requested they illuminate the #Bemidji monument purple to honor COVID victims and front-line workers.

“We have incorporated (the #Bemidji monument) into our social media, and visitors identify with it. What’s more perfect than a selfie with Paul and Babe other than to go over and take one with #Bemidji,” Laudon said. “People love bringing their pets and their families, and we've even seen wedding photos. It’s been really exciting to be able to attach that #Bemidji with their experience.”

In continuing to grow their social media presence, Visit Bemidji also recruited the town’s celebrated outdoorsman Dick Beardsley to provide weekly fishing reports. So far, Beardsley’s open water and hard water season video reports have reached a combined total of 154,000 new potential visitors to Bemidji.

“We couldn’t have a better ambassador for the town than Dick Beardsley in talking about his passion for the outdoors,” Laudon said. “That's really a huge component to why people travel to Bemidji.”

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In collaboration with Visit Bemidji, celebrated Bemidji outdoorsman Dick Beardsley provides weekly fishing reports, helping to grow the visitor bureau's social media presence. Contributed

Bringing people to Bemidji

In late August, Bemidji hosted the Professional Musky Tournament Trail, the largest musky tournament in the U.S., for the first time. It was an event Visit Bemidji worked to bring to the area, as it was an opportunity to showcase Bemidji on a national level as an up-and-coming outdoors destination.

“Over 25 states were represented and there were over 61 muskies caught, so it was a huge success,” Laudon said. “We hope to be bringing more events like that to Bemidji in the future.”

Laudon handles the sports marketing and tourism side of Visit Bemidji and works with tournaments to secure lodging room blocks -- or “heads in beds.” He said sports -- such as hockey, baseball, softball, soccer, pickleball and stock car racing -- and their potential impact on the town have not always been at the forefront of Bemidji’s tourism initiative, but it’s something Visit Bemidji has identified in the last few years.

“We hear from the hotels more and more that tourism is leaning more toward sports than it ever has. Sports tourism is huge for Bemidji,” Laudon said. “We have a lot of great youth organizations in town that are looking to be active and that are bringing outside visitors to town. We haven't engaged with them in the past, but it's something we’re really (accomplishing) now.”

Visit Bemidji has also begun inserting itself into more community events, such as the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival, the Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival and the Blue Ox Marathon, in order to draw in more visitors and events to the area.

Over 2020 and 2021, Visit Bemidji contributed $45,280 to marketing involving the Sanford Center. It has a yearly allocation of $19,000 in a fund for conference and convention buydown for any convention or conference space in the Bemidji area.

“This is to lure these larger conferences and conventions to Bemidji to help get them over that edge and get them to sign on the dotted line,” Peterson said.

Campaign ambitions

Going forward, Peterson and Laudon are planning to set their focus on making the Visit Bemidji campaign more inclusive by incorporating more of Bemidji’s Native American culture into it.

“That is obviously a major part of our identity and our DNA in this area,” Peterson said.

Breaking into larger markets is another top priority for Visit Bemidji, and Peterson noted that the Chicago market is on their horizon.

But they continue to want to encourage people -- those who haven’t visited the town in decades and aren’t aware of its growth -- to rediscover Bemidji and continue returning for years to come.

“Our mission statement overall has not changed, and that is to strengthen the region’s economy through the promotion of travel and tourism. Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen that grow significantly in our area, and we’re seeing that interest continue on in the fall and upcoming winter seasons,” Peterson said. “We’re finding that people are starting to come back and that return business is what’s going to set us up for success in the future.”

Bria Barton covers travel and tourism for Forum News Service and is based at the Bemidji Pioneer. A South Carolina native and USC grad, she can be found exploring Minnesota’s abundance of towns, food and culture. Follow her on Instagram @briabarton.
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