Tourism department promoting ND to international travelers [The Bismarck Tribune, N.D.]By Jessica Holdman, The Bismarck Tribune, N.D.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 08--So far this year Fred Walker has logged 36,000 miles on 21 flights. He has spent 73 hours in the air and visited seven countries over a 31-day period.
His goal -- promoting North Dakota to international travelers.
Walker is the international travel marketing manager for the North Dakota Department of Tourism. He has represented the state at travel shows in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Iceland, Los Angeles and Buffalo, Wyo., to name a few.
"Every country in the world goes to those shows," he said. "What we're trying to do is get them to North Dakota."
Walker also meets with tour operators to get North Dakota into their vacation catalogs and takes members of the media on tours of the state.
With all of the traveling, the state's international marketing program has a budget of $435,900 for the biennium. Walker said the tourism department saves on cost where it can. One way is by joining forces with nearby states in a group called Rocky Mountain International. The states share booths and hotel rooms. Several in the tourism business say the cost is worth it.
The deparment of tourism's international tourism program began 15 years ago. Tourism director Sara Otte Coleman said the program started out small, doing one large show a year and promoting specific events rather than on a steady basis.
Jay and Jeremy Doan are fifth generation ranchers in Sterling and run ranch vacations on their working cattle ranch.
Jay Doan said Walker was the one to put him and his brother in contact with international tour operators.
"He has been a tremendous help," he said. "They have all the connections."
In their first full season, the Doans have had 20 international guests so far.
Walker first saw what international tourism can do for a community while working for the tourism department in Jamestown
"I do this for pocketbooks," Walker said.
Walker said his goal is to grow businesses in North Dakota. If he is able to help someone keep their store open, the traveling is worth it.
Tracy Potter with the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation said he saw guests at Fort Lincoln from 30 to 35 nations last year.
"I think it's steadily increasing," he said.
Potter said international visitors account for 2 percent to 3 percent of the foundation's overall business, 6 percent if they include Canada. He said it adds up to $25,000 annually at Fort Lincoln alone.
"If they spend $6 with us, they spend $200 in the community," he said.
Walker also is starting to see his work pay off. In his meetings this year, he said people have stopped asking where North Dakota is and have started asking what they can do here and what is new.
""We are getting the word out," he said.
When Walker began working for the tourism department 10 years ago, North Dakota was not in any German travel catalogs. Now the state is in five major catalogs in the country and is in three across Australia and New Zealand.
Walker said he can go to a show and see someone he talked to the year before. Since he last saw them they have been to North Dakota and have told others about it.
Walker said another difference is that North Dakota is adding things, like the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center expansion, while other states are cutting back.
The tourists that come to North Dakota are different from those the go to large cities, like Los Angeles, Walker said. They usually will travel in smaller groups of two to eight people. He said the tourism department targets nations that speak English as a second language so it's easier for them to communicate with North Dakotans and be comfortable. He said they usually have been to the U.S. three or four times and want to see the "real America" they have read about in books and have seen in John Wayne movies.
Jay Doan said he didn't even know there was a demand for ranch vacations until approached by Walker. He said the visitors like the things that he and his family sometimes take for granted, like moving cattle and wide open spaces.
"They'd rather have that than the Disney World type experience," he said.
International travelers usually stay longer than U.S. vacationers because they have four to six weeks of vacation time, Walker said. They also tend to spend twice as much money and are more willing to get off the main road and explore.
"They're going to stop in Jamestown to see the buffalo, go to the casino, go to Washburn, go to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park," Walker said. "When they go to the Grand Canyon they want to experience it, not just hop out of car to take a picture."
Another element that attracts international travelers to the state is they get to meet "real people," Walker said. He said one international journalist that ate in a Cooperstown cafe told Walker the people were genuinely nice. Walker had another group of German visitors get lost in sunflower field and several Swedish visitors get invited to a church supper in Beach.
Walker said it is hard to tell how many international travelers actually come to North Dakota because there are no major international airports. He said many will rent a car and drive through the state on their way to places like Yellowstone National Park. He said if you see a Cruise America vehicle there's a pretty good chance it's an international traveler.
Walker gained a love for travel himself at a young age. His parents would make him read travel guides to see what was coming up ahead while on family vacations. Now he collects flags from every country he visits and has a boomerang from Australia in his office.
"I want to have something from everywhere I go," he said. "I'm a bit of a tourist too."
Walker also will walk miles to eat at mom-and-pop type restaurants and talk to locals. When he tells customers at travel shows about where he went, it lets them know he cares about what he's trying to sell them.
Walker's familiarity with North Dakota also has helped him. He grew up in Mayville and went to visit his grandpa in Pembina Gorge every summer. Before starting at the toursim department he had never flown overseas and had to rush the delivery of his passport. This year he had no pages left and had to get a new one.
"With my job I've traveled everywhere," he said. "I know what it's like outside our borders and know someone in every country."
Walker now gets birthday wishes from seven different countries and people at the travel shows recognize him.
"I wear a cowboy hat and boots everywhere I go," he said. "I can't hide with that on."
(c)2012 The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, N.D.)
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