Gathering Together: The Nebraska Travel Conference

The annual Nebraska Travel Conference wrapped up in Norfolk last night. It was a great time seeing old friends, making new ones, and hearing what everyone is doing to make our great state better for visitors and residents alike.
We learned from Karen McCullough that the biggest trend in tourism is CHANGE! Constant change… whether it’s learning the latest technology, the latest marketing avenues (think social media and how much that changes day to day!), the changing generations and the way they each travel, emerging niche markets. You name it, it’s in a state of change.
These were comforting words to hear for Nebraska tourism, because it means that a lot of people are feeling our pain!! Change is the byword for Nebraska tourism for the past two years. Two years ago, state tourism was a division of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Then they were charged by the Legislature to create a comprehensive strategic plan… good, right?
Yes, lots of wonderful stuff has come out of that process, but what an undertaking it was for a new director. Next, just about a year and a half ago, the Legislature also decided that tourism should be its own Commission. Again, good, right?
Yes, very, very good. But what changes it meant! The Tourism Advisory Committee, who met infrequently to give input from around the state suddenly became Commissioners! It meant moving out of offices previously occupied, doing without all of the support that came from just being a “division”.
Finally, it was time to renew all of the contracts for services – in-bound call center, fulfillment, media and public relations, marketing and digital! We got to meet the new members of the team during the conference, and I can tell you that there is a new energy and excitement coursing through the Nebraska Tourism Commission and those charged with helping them fulfill their mission – helping to make Nebraska the best state in the nation to visit (and live in!), and to attract all those visitors to whom Nebraska is an undiscovered country.
At the opening Nebraska Tourism Association meeting, we learned there are LOTS (lots, and lots and lots!) of challenges facing our industry.
  • Signage - In doing the outstanding job that they do, the Nebraska Department of Roads have inadvertently put HUGE road blocks up for our mom and pop tourism entities (which most in Nebraska are). Their strict interpretation of the Highway beautification act means that tourists have a hard time finding some of our more spectacular out-of-the-way places. South Dakota, recognizing they will get MORE money from tourist income has chosen to forego some federal highway dollars by taking a more relaxed view of the Highway Beautification Act. Might be something to think about.
  • Liquor Laws – Do you love staying in beautiful, unique, quaint beds and breakfasts? Who doesn’t?! Did you know that for that bed and breakfast, who might only have one or two rooms to rent out, and doesn’t really do it for money, but to share the love of their community with visitors, has to purchase a complete liquor license to sell that local wine and beer made just down the street, at a cost of approximately $500 annually? That might be all the profit they make in a year. Iowa has a $25 annual Native liquor license meant for domestically (in-state) produced beer and wine. Good idea, right?
  • Recreational Liability – Here’s the elephant in the room if ever there was one! When you go on an adventure, one that might include some inherent risk, do you recognize that you bear some of the responsibility if something untoward should happen? That seems like a no-brainer, right? Not in Nebraska! If you step onto a farm or ranch or other private property (remember, Nebraska has only 3% public land, so nearly ALL of our beauty is private land), that property owner bears 100% of the liability for anything that might happen to you. Can you imagine how expensive that makes insurance? You can’t have adventures on Nebraska’s private land because land owners can’t afford to let you! (Now, before anyone gets their panties in a twist because I’m not telling the exact truth – if a farmer, rancher or landowner lets you on their land FOR FREE, they do have some protection. Great for those good Samaritans, but where’s the economic development in that?)
  • Public land funding – remember me mentioning above that Nebraska only has 3% public lands? Well, guess what… that 3% is horribly underfunded! Right now there is a $30 million backlog in deferred maintenance items, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission had to close dozens of public areas this fall and winter season to begin addressing some of those issues. These public lands are treasures for everyone to enjoy, and include not only parks and outdoor recreation, but some of our most precious historical sites such as Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park in North Platte.
What else did we learn?
  • We learned that a destination’s brand is only as good as the quality of the encounter between a visitor and the lowest-paid employee in your destination. Think about that one for awhile as you picture the desk clerk at the highway-side convenience store.
  • We learned that we’ve got to fill our visitors’ emotional bank accounts – speak to the heart first, then the mind, both with the experiences we offer and with our marketing materials.
  • We learned that we have the tools (YouTube, Pinterest, Vine, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs), to make our visitors’ mouths water when they see the wonderful images and stories we tell about what they are going to enjoy in our destinations.
  • We learned… actually, we reiterated, that Nebraska is an amazing, undiscovered country filled with warm people, beautiful scenery and spectacular adventures just waiting for visitors to enjoy them.
The Nebraska Tourism Commission, from the director Kathy McKillip to the Commissioners from around the state to all of the old and new faces on the staff, plus the team of professional vendors they have assembled, has their work cut out for them. But feeling the energy from them during the Travel Conference, I believe they are up for the task.
  • For instance, with a $160,000 investment in sponsorships and in-kind donations, they have brought four media trips through Nebraska, already resulting in more than $1.6 million in earned media coverage! And many articles aren’t even published yet!
  • They partnered with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Public Television and the University of Nebraska to get some amazing aerial footage of Nebraska. And, for all of you expressing your skepticism on YouTube that this was NOT filmed in Nebraska, drop me a line, come visit and we’ll go road tripping to show you!
  • They are building relationships – with the Nebraska Restaurant Association, the Nebraska Hotel Motel Association to name two, but there are many others whose work fits hand-in-hand with theirs. They recognize that and are building bridges wherever possible to get us all moving in the same direction.
  • They are innovating! I know I chide them for their lackluster performance in the arena of social media, but they have plans and projects in the works to improve and get the word out to the BILLIONS of people who can be reached using these tools.
Now, the entire Nebraska Tourism Industry needs to follow their lead. It was sad that there were only about 170 people who attended the conference. Yes, it's an investment in both time and money, but it is vital that we come together to get to know each other, learn how to be better entrepreneurs and hosts, how to market ourselves better. A rising tide floats all of the boats, but the tide would rise much faster if we were all involved in growing and bettering tourism as a whole, rather than just cuccooned in our own little world. We hope to see you ALL in North Platte in 2014, October 22 - 24!

So… watch out world! You’re going to see a Nebraska you never knew existed (truly… you don’t know we exist!) in the very near future, and you’re going to be AMAZED!


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