The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 24, 2013

Progress 2013: As a tourist attraction, holiday lights were a bright spot

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Mankato tourism in 2012 was all about the tried (the third annual Mankato Marathon), the true (the always well-attended Minnesota Vikings training camp) and the new kid on the block.

The inaugural Kiwanis Holiday Lights display in Sibley Park showed what creative deployment of a million LED lights can do.

The Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s Eve event drew an estimated 100,000 visitors after organizers earlier in the year said they’d hoped to draw 50,000.

“But they blew that out of the water,” Visit Mankato (formerly Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau) President Anna Thill said of an event that drew crowds from near and far.

“We know we had visitors from all over,” she said, alluding to the many out-of-state license plates that were observed along the drive-by display route.

But did that translate to overnight stays and money spent in town? Thill said that’s harder to discern, particularly because local lodging occupancy rates in November and December were skewed by the opening of the Marriott hotel near River Hills Mall.

As a result, Thill said sheer occupancy rates at individual lodging places for that period registered lower, though she surmises the opening of the new hotel simply spread lodgers more thinly.

Meantime, lodging occupancy rates overall in 2012 came in at 56 percent, a 4 percent increase over the previous year.

The other big hitters in local tourism included the largest: Vikings training camp lasting about two weeks, and the fall Mankato Marathon, which is looking to hit the 5,000-participant mark this year.

Thill said a new wrinkle this year — early-bird registration discount offerings — is helping propel the marathon toward that goal.

And to prime the runners’ pumps, so to speak, the CVB is promoting a spate of spring fun runs to get people in the group-running mood.

 Events slated for April and May include the Gorilla, Zombie and 7@7 runs.

The burgeoning River Ramble bicycle tour began two years ago and attracted about 2,000 riders in fall 2012. Thill said tourism organizations covet runners and bikers in particular.

“Marathoners and bicyclists are some of the best tourists because they tend to be better educated, have some money, and they spend it.”

Looming on the visitor and tourism horizon is the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota that, when a permanent home is secured for it, is anticipated to draw about 50,000 visitors yearly.

Thill said if the nonprofit museum locates in Mankato’s soon-to-be-abandoned bus garage in the new downtown Sibley Parkway area, it would be a drawing-card boon for local tourism in general.

Thill said such a museum melds well with tourism because it produces a critical mass of people that makes for a livelier, more vibrant downtown atmosphere.

More importantly, the families it draws will likely be apt to partake in the community’s other offerings.

“What it does is allow us to package more effectively what we sell.”

Thill said that “sell” is reflected in the CVB’s new brand tagline, “Mankato Now Playing,” that plays to the greater Mankato area’s trails, culture and sports offerings.

Thill invoked the overarching essence of the rebranding effort: “Small town feel, big city amenities.”