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UMN conducts winter tourism study with Lanesboro

With a grant from the Blandin Foundation, the City of Lanesboro hired the University of Minnesota Tourism Extension to help develop winter tourism strategies for the southeastern Minnesota town.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

The Tourism Center is a part of the University of Minnesota Extension and has partnered with Lanesboro, Minnesota, to help develop winter tourism strategies for the town this year.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Lanesboro has a population of 729. However, its summer months are busy, garnering around 12,000 visitors annually, according to reporting from KTTC. The Lanesboro Farmers Market opens May 6, kicking off a summer of outdoor activities.

A $50,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation has made this partnership possible, which is set to come to a close in June.

DeeDee LeMier, community economics and tourism educator for Extension, has worked with this project, titled “Chill-Inn,” since the end of 2022.

Minnesota communities can hire Extension to help identify tourism strategies that aren’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” LeMier said.

“Our goals are that communities strengthen relationships within themselves, that they’re building skills and creating more capacity through their programs and that we leave them with information to feel empowered to improve their own experience of their own community,” LeMier said.

Chill-Inn began with a meeting between business owners and the City of Lanesboro in January 2022, according to Alison Leathers, chair of the Lanesboro Businesses Promotion Group.

The group is one of four core groups collaborating on this project. The other three are the City of Lanesboro, the Lanesboro Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

The project stemmed from increased winter visitors during the 2021-2022 winter season, according to Leathers. Visitors asked what was available to them in the winter, identifying a need for stronger communication about Lanesboro’s winter offerings for prospective tourists.

“We’ve conducted an electronic business survey and an electronic citizen survey,” Leathers said. “We’ve had an in-person gathering where the [Extension] facilitated a SOAR activity, presented the initial survey results and were able to gather more data through discussion.”

The SOAR framework highlights strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results of specific projects like Chill-Inn. The results of the surveys and events showed that there was community and business support behind expanding winter tourism, Leathers said.

“We knew through the verbal feedback and the comments in the survey that of course we’re never going to be at the same level of business we are in the summer, and we don’t want that,” Leathers said. “We’re burned out.”

Arun Saldanha, a professor of geography, environment & society at the University, said a tourist town is hard to define.

“A tourist town is a town, which in recent years can buck the trend of people leaving and actually finding some way to attract people to come through,” Saldanha said. “It’s a place that is an exception to the rule that little towns are hurting and have enough visitors to create revenue and jobs.”

According to Saldanha, tourism is about capitalizing on unique and marketable opportunities in a community.

“Anything can be made into a product, and a city can market itself along with a whole lot of things,” Saldanha said. “We can’t have what we don’t have, we don’t have the Rockies or the sea in Minnesota. When it comes to tourism management, it’s all about capitalizing on what you do have.”

Lanesboro, which is Minnesota’s Bed and Breakfast Capital, already has a few set events throughout the winter months, including Lovebirds in Lanesboro over Valentine’s Day weekend and Cabin Fever Fest in March.

“It’s a nice place to escape for a cozy stay, bring your book and sit by the fireplace,” Leathers said. “We’ve got the aesthetic of being able to slow down and relax, maybe do some outdoor winter activities with a decent snowfall.”

The group will present the study’s final findings in June, and the implementation of the findings will likely begin during the next winter season, LeMier said.

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