A little more than a year ago, the Nebraska Tourism Commission announced its new tourism campaign and slogan. It caught many people by surprise. It dumbfounded some. Made others giggled and laughed.
But it did what it was designed to do — got people talking — and most importantly, got people coming to Nebraska and communities such as Grand Island.
John Ricks, executive director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, spoke to Grand Island Rotarians on Tuesday. It is something he has been doing a lot of during the last year as he tells Nebraskans that their state is being added to a lot of people’s places-to-go list.
The Nebraska tourism slogan that has gotten national attention is “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
Ricks said their new tourism campaign is mainly focused out of state, where, he said, it should be focused.
When he began heading up the Nebraska Tourism Commission three years ago, one of the first things he discovered was that much of that state’s tourism promotion money was being spent in Nebraska.
“The first thing we did was to move it out of state,” Ricks said. “People out of state come longer and spend more.”
He said tourism is a big business in Nebraska.
“It is one of the largest industries in the state at about $3.4 billion per year,” Ricks said. “It provides more than 40,000 jobs in the state. It generates hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local taxes.”
Over the last 10 years, Grand Island has seen a boom in tourism — when the Nebraska State Fair moved to the community, more than $40 million of livestock barns and exposition space was built. Those new barns have been used successfully to attract many national livestock shows. Husker Harvest Days has also continued to grow, bringing visitors to Grand Island from around the world. That has led to the community building new motels and adding many new dining experiences.
Ricks said when they started spending tourism money out of the state, “We got people to start paying attention to us.”
For many years, he said, Nebraska ranked 50th when it came to being a state people were most likely to visit.
“We had to find a way to get out of that,” Ricks said. “We produced a campaign that from the get-go we knew was going to be disruptive. We had to do something that was a little bit different for attention because people told us that Nebraska was not on their vacation list. They would not go to a website to learn anything about us. So we had to shake it up a bit.”
Once they introduced the new campaign, he said, it went “viral” nationally, being mentioned repeatedly on the internet and on national television programs.
It generated the national publicity that Ricks wanted. Comedians were poking fun at the new slogan. But that was exactly what he had in mind.
“It is working,” he said. “We are funded by a lodging tax and we have set an all-time high in lodging tax collections. That is really good news.”
And the campaign continues to gain momentum nationally and around the world.
“We are in our first year, but we are really excited to see where it has taken us and where we are going in the future,” he said.
Ricks has been in the advertising game most of his adult life and learned a lot of valuable lessons when it comes to getting people’s attention.
“My mentor taught me that people don’t go to places that they are not aware of, and people were not aware of us,” he said. “They don’t go to places where they were not invited, and we were not inviting people.”
Many things are helping to contribute to the state’s booming tourism industry. Social media sites help travelers find popular destinations, whether it be a tourist venue or a restaurant or a place to spend the night.
The state’s popular passport program is another indicator that people are looking for unique and off-the-beaten-path places to go.
Ricks said the first year he was tourism commissioner, the passport program had 430 people complete the passport’s stops. They recently announced that this year more than 900 people went to all 70 stops. But what was the eye-catcher was there were participants from 34 states getting their passports stamped.
“This (Nebraska) is a place for people who like to peel back the onion a little bit,” he said. “They want to wander and they have time to wander.”
It is not just baby boomers who have both time and dollars, but people of all ages, Ricks said.
“I believe over the next number of years, Nebraska will start showing up on people’s shopping list of places to go,” he said. “That wasn’t the case for a long time. It is not going to change overnight, but we have made some really good steps so far and we are looking forward to the future.”