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Tourism report: DL does a good job, and there's opportunity to do even better

The Detroit Lakes area must be doing something right.

Visitors almost all enjoy themselves, and most of them come back again.

And those visitors tend to travel in slightly larger groups, stay longer, and spend more money than most other areas of the state.

That's the news from a recently completed tourism study of the Detroit Lakes-Mahnomen Area -- which also includes Frazee and White Earth -- done by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center.

The study involves more than 550 self-identified visitors interviewed throughout the year at places as different as the Fireside Restaurant, the Shooting Star Casino and K&K Tubing, and at events as different as the White Earth Powwow, WE Fest and Frazee Turkey Days.

Most of the visitors were well-off baby boomers with grown children, or families with kids under age 18. Their average age was 46. The most frequently cited income was between $50,000 and $75,000.

And most were repeat visitors from within 200 miles of Detroit Lakes -- many from the Twin Cities and Fargo-Moorhead areas.

The most important reason for visiting the area was to attend a festival or special event (49 percent gave this as their reason for visiting), followed by scenic drives, entertainment/nightlife (47 percent listed this), fall colors, lots of activities/attractions, the natural environment, sightseeing and that "small town feel" (listed by 43 percent).

Tourists in the region averaged four people per travel party and stayed an average of three nights, spending about $105 on lodging and $48 on restaurant food and beverages each day. Average stay in a motel was two days. In a campground, it was four days.

And they like it here. More than 85 percent said they'll probably or definitely return next year, and 90 percent said they'll be back within five years.

The visitors could be divided into three groups, named for their primary reason for visiting the area -- nature/cultural, active recreation and motors and sports.

Repeat visitors tended to be in the nature/cultural and motor/sports groups. First-time visitors were more apt to fall into the active recreation category.

Common among the groups was the importance of newspaper or magazine ads for destination awareness. But those seeking active recreation were more apt to use the Internet to decide where to visit.

Perhaps surprisingly, when asked what season they would most like to return, the majority said springtime. That was followed by fall, summer and winter.

While the area is blessed with a strong group of return visitors, there are plenty of opportunities to encourage longer stays and new visitors.

People love the outdoors, for example, and of the top 10 most important features ranked by visitors, six involved nature.

But only about a third of all visitors actually took a photo tour of Tamarac Natural Wildlife Refuge, or rented a canoe to explore the lakes, or otherwise got up close and personal with Mother Nature while they were here.

That could be because they didn't know about the opportunities, or didn't have time to enjoy them, the report speculates. But they might stay another day or two if they knew what they were missing.

Packaging might help.

"Certainly tying in the current experiences of small town feel and scenic drives with important, but unrealized experiences such as visits to parks and water-based recreation is feasible," the report says. "Ideas such as nature meanders (comparable to the Meander Art Crawl), scavenger hunts within the region or targeted spring wildlife opportunities may meet visitor needs and provide revenue in the shoulder seasons."

Fewer than half of all visitors take advantage of shopping, entertainment and gaming opportunities in the Detroit Lakes-Mahnomen area. There is opportunity there as well to increase local revenue, the report suggests.

The last tourism study was done in 2001, and while most demographic and trip characteristics have not changed, a few things have: People are staying about a half-day longer now, and they are spending less time planning their trips -- about 10 weeks now as compared to 12 weeks.

About 25 people attended the presentation of the study Tuesday by graduate assistant Raintry Salk at the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.