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Visit Duluth deploys new tech to track tourists

Anna Tanski is Visit Duluth's executive director. 2014 file / News Tribune

Visit Duluth recently deployed some new technology that could provide better insight of how well its online efforts to market Duluth as a tourist destination are working.

The local tourist organization's proposed budget for next year includes $37,000 to cover the first half of a two-year contract with an outfit called Arrivalist, a firm that promises to provide the city with unique insight into the behavior of prospective visitors.

Anna Tanski, Visit Duluth's executive director, jokingly called the new technology both "fascinating and terrifying."

Here's how it works.

When someone clicks on an online ad or visits a website designed to promote Duluth, a pixel will be embedded in the device, whether that be a phone, a tablet or a laptop computer. Arrivalist then will track that electronic device and let Visit Duluth know if and when it arrives in Duluth.

But it's not quite as creepy as it sounds. Visit Duluth won't know the actual identities of the people it's tracking.

What it will track is: the device's point of origin when the initial electronic contact was made, the date of that connection and the subsequent amount of time that elapses before the device arrives in Duluth, if indeed the promotion prompts a visit.

Additional options also are available but are too expensive for Visit Duluth to afford at this time, Tanski said. Those additional features could one day provide the organization with information about visit durations and tourist spending patterns.

Tanski said the real-time data Arrivalist provides should give Visit Duluth insight into how effective or ineffective marketing campaigns prove to be, based on prospective visitors' interactions with specific promotional content.

In the past, Visit Duluth had to rely on after-the-fact surveys to assess its marketing success, but Tanski expects the new information collected by Arrivalist to be more valuable in part because of its freshness.

"This will be real and actual hard data," Tanski said.

She said the timeliness of the information collected should enable Visit Duluth to make adjustments on the fly if people aren't responding.

"If they're not biting, it tells us that maybe we're not in the correct market. Or if we're targeting a specific demographic in a market — let's say we're targeting Millennials — is that message resonating? Or is it not being effective? Then we can either change our message or move on to a different demographic," Tanski said.

Visit Duluth already has enjoyed some success with targeted campaigns, including some designed to appeal to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers, Tanski said.

"That collaboration is still pretty much in its infancy really. In the past five years, we've made a really strategic effort to make sure that we are as welcoming as we can be as a community, but also that we are intentionally messaging to that community because we don't just do a one-size-fits-all approach," she said.

"We customize our ad content, and we are very genuine in what we're trying to share. Not that a gay or lesbian family travels any differently than other families. But when you can identify with the person you're looking at it makes you more likely to relate to that destination. So we're really cognizant of that, and I would say we're still learning in that process how to be as effective as possible," Tanski said.

Tanski said others in the tourism industry, including Explore Minnesota, report beneficial results from using Arrivalist's data.

Despite the significant up-front expense of the contract with Arrivalist, Tanski predicts it will be money well spent if it helps Visit Duluth make the most of its $2.7 million budget.

"It's going to make us, in the long run, much more effective in the ads we are placing and making sure we're in the right markets," she said.

Tanski notes that Duluth's tourism industry is thriving, and it continues to grow. Visit Duluth estimates that about 6.7 million visitors per year call on the city, generating a total economic impact of $950 million. It reports that tourism also provides more than 17,000 jobs in Duluth.

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