Tourism in Nebraska is a multi-billion dollar industry. However, a recent study by the Nebraska Tourism Commission shows many people, including Nebraskans, don’t think of the state as a good place to vacation. The Tourism Commission is trying to change that.
During the first weekend of July, in downtown Kearney, hundreds of classic cars rumbled slowly down the city’s historic Second Avenue. The parade of automobiles lasted for almost two hours, as more than 12,000 spectators took in the sights and sounds of the Lincoln Highway Centennial Celebration, which marked the 100 year anniversary of the first transcontinental highway in the U.S.
Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
The Kearney Police Department estimated nearly 12,000 people lined Second Avenue during the Lincoln Highway Centennial Celebration. Many of the visitors were from outside the city. One official said visitors from nine different countries made the trek to Kearney for the event.
“I think this is possibly the largest classic car parade I’ve ever seen in one place. Every parade has a few old cars in it, but this is the biggest car parade I’ve ever seen,” said Bob Lichty, the former president of the National Lincoln Highway Association and one of the co-chairs of the cross-country tour which brought so many cars to central Nebraska.
“It was almost a no-brainer,” Lichty continued. “We knew we wanted to be in the middle of the country. We’d also been to Kearney before, and we were aware of just their wonderful savviness about tourism. We knew the tourism bureau was here, the Archway Museum. We knew we’d get treated right here.”
It took seven years of planning and hundreds of volunteers working thousands of man-hours to pull off the Centennial Celebration.
Ronnie O’Brien, the Nebraska director for the national Lincoln Highway Association, said it was all time well spent, attracting more than 12,000 visitors to downtown Kearney.
“We had people from nine different countries here. Came across the world to travel the Lincoln Highway and come to Kearney, Nebraska for this 100th anniversary of any nation’s first transcontinental highway,” O’Brien said.
The Lincoln Highway Centennial, and the attention it garnered, is precisely the type of event Nebraska tourism officials are looking for. It had excitement, attracted audiences both nationally and internationally, and it brought money to the state.
“It’s real money. It’s real revenue. It’s frontline generating revenue,” said Kathy McKillip, the director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission.
Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
Kathy McKillip is the director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission. She says as an entity operating on public funding, the commission must leverage the importance of raising the state's image in outside markets with a limited budget. The Nebraska Tourism Commission focuses on marketing the state's tourist attractions in a 250 to 350 mile radius around the state.
McKillip said businesses see an immediate economic impact when events like the Lincoln Highway Centennial are held in Nebraska.
“When you have a visitor in your community you have gas, you have fuel, you have lodging,” McKillip added. “All of them are paying taxes that are going back into that immediate area. It’s not a tax you access four or five years down the road. It’s something where the dollars are constantly circulating.”
That high-octane return of revenue is why the Nebraska Legislature voted unanimously to establish the Tourism Commission in the first place.
After 37 years under the umbrella of the state’s Department of Economic Development, lawmakers made the Tourism Commission a separate entity last year.
McKillip said that autonomy allows the commission to branch out and try new things—like inviting almost three dozen travel writers to Kearney ahead of the Centennial Celebration, or sponsoring the National Western Stock Show in Denver.
However, McKillip said the Tourism Commission still needs to leverage the need for exposure with a limited budget.
“We’re a state agency. We have limited funding opportunities and the best way we can utilize our public dollars is to leverage them with partnerships and packages. Whether it’s a public-private partnership or whether it’s working with industry leaders to help promote what they do,” McKillip said.
For example, the Tourism Commission partners with the Nebraska Hotel/Motel Association to promote the Nebraska Passport Program. The program encourages Nebraskans to be tourists in their own state, and actually awards prizes to residents who visit numerous Nebraska landmarks.
McKillip said while the Tourism Commission operates on public funding, attracting tourists to Nebraska is still a business, and competition with other states is fierce. To better understand what tourists want, the Tourism Commission just concluded a yearlong survey which focused on what tourists look for when planning a trip.
Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism Commission
Kathy McKillip of the Nebraska Tourism Commission said Bayside Golf Course near Lake McConaughy is a prime example of how Nebraska can offer a great deal of diversity for tourists in a relatively close area. She said golfers can enjoy a breath-taking course while their families can enjoy the many water recreational activities at the lake.
According to McKillip, the study found 72 percent of those polled said they’re looking for scenic beauty, peacefulness, open space, and something that’s soul stirring. Of that 72 percent, only 21 percent feel Nebraska may have those things.
To get the biggest bang for their buck, McKillip said the Tourism Commission focuses most of its advertising efforts primarily in a 250 to 350-mile radius around Nebraska, focusing on places like Kansas City, Des Moines, Chicago, and Denver.
The partnerships. The marketing campaigns both in and out of state. The research. McKillip said it’s all done with the same goal in mind -- to bring more money to Nebraska. She said tourism brought in $3.1 billion in 2012, an increase of almost six percent from the previous year.
As the commission grows, McKillip hopes to capitalize on the success of events like the Lincoln Highway Centennial to attract more tourists to the state.
Bob Lichty said that should be an easy sell.
“I think Nebraska as a whole is a very savvy state when it comes to tourism. We’re from Ohio, and we had some friends who thought we were crazy to go to Nebraska for our vacation. I told them you have no clue how much great stuff there is to do in Nebraska, what a cool state it is, and how smart the tourism professionals are here,” Lichty said. “I think Nebraska definitely has an edge. Because we’re involved in what we do, we’ve traveled the entire United States, some states get it, some states don’t.”