Talking Tourism: Leveraging Lodging Tax Dollars for Success | By Molly O’Neill

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: January 2018

Talking Tourism: Leveraging Lodging Tax Dollars for Success | By Molly O’Neill

What is Lodging Tax? Who pays it? What is it used for? Who authorized it? Do I need to register my lodging property? There are a number of misconceptions and questions surrounding the collection of lodging tax. So in 1,000 words I will try to explain this complex subject that is vital to the success of tourism in our community. It’s not only visitor bureaus and chambers of commerce who rely on lodging tax for funding. Target Center, Mall of America, The DECC, and even Superior National Golf Course owe their existence in part to lodging tax funding. So how does it all fit together? 

A brief History of Minnesota State Statute 469.190:

While the art of hospitality has long been a part of our heritage, the official collection of lodging tax has a brief history. Prior to 1972, cities and towns were allowed to impose local tax on sales of admissions, lodging, or live entertainment to fund entertainment or tourism projects as approved by individual city ordinances but it was up to the local governments to decide to participate. In 1983 the first law of what is now known as MN State Statute 469.190 was passed authorizing MN cities to collect a 3% tax on lodging room sales. In 1985 that tax as extended to include towns and counties.  In 1987, the townships of Tofte, Lutsen and Schroeder voted to approve lodging tax. The City of Grand Marais followed in 1988, and the county approved the unorganized territory of the Gunflint Trail in 1992. Additions of unorganized territory areas that fall outside township boundaries and increases to the approved percentages followed until 2000, when all areas had adopted the 3% maximum allowed.

Revenues collected through lodging tax must be used only for promoting the city or town as a tourist area. The collection of all lodging tax is monitored and penalties imposed for non-compliance by the authority stated in each entity’s ordinance. In Cook County, this is done by the Auditors office while compliance with other laws such as state health laws is monitored and regulated by the state.

In 2008, to address the need for supporting the production of events that draw visitors and fall outside the scope of marketing, the state of MN wrote an allowance into session law (366.007 Section 17) specifically for Cook County to apply an additional 1% lodging tax, and also allows up to 3% tax to be collected on sales related to recreation. The 1% Event Tax, what we call it for clarity, is used to support and promote local events selected by the tourism associations that make up Visit Cook County as we are now known. This law is up for renewal after 15 years, unlike the permanent 3% lodging tax.

Marketing and Events– How we use tax revenues to bring visitors here and enhance their stay:

Now that you know the history, let’s talk about how Visit Cook County leverages those tax dollars. The 3% lodging tax is used primarily for marketing the entire Cook County area, whereas the 1% event tax is used to produce and market events that may attract visitors or augment their itinerary. Marketing initiatives can be anything from a print ad in a magazine to hosting a booth at a tradeshow to a digital billboard in the Twin Cities. In addition to traditional marketing efforts, Visit Cook County also manages social media accounts and works with a public relations firm in Minneapolis to spread awareness of the area’s communities. The 1% event tax is unique to Cook County and ensures that events are well marketed and supported. Thanks to the 1%, event planners specifically choose to host events in, or even move existing events to Cook County for the support that Visit Cook County provides for event marketing and funding, bringing their attendees and their tourism dollars with them.

Lodging tax dollars are also invested in bolstering the visitor experience. It’s imperative that tourists have a positive and memorable time in Cook County which they then share with friends, family and others through word of mouth and social media. To accomplish this Visit Cook County prioritizes the website, funds and staffs information centers in Grand Marais and Tofte, and creates printed publications including an annual visitor guide, recreational trail and attraction maps and a monthly event newsletter. These tools help visitors plan their trips, find interesting things to do while they’re here and share their memories when they return home.

How is lodging and event tax collected and paid?

Cabins, hotels, resorts, vacation rentals and private campgrounds are all required to collect lodging tax from their overnight guests. Once collected, it must be paid to the Cook County Auditor’s Office monthly, quarterly or annually.  Additionally, some non-lodging recreation businesses voluntarily collect a fee in lieu of tax to provide financial partnership with the lodging tax funds.

More and more there is heightened awareness about vacation rental by owner properties collecting lodging taxes from guests and paying it in to the county. Along with state and local requirements about zoning compliance and health regulations, all rental property owners except those leasing for more than 30 days, are required by law to participate in lodging tax collection. The benefits that vacation rentals by owner, or VRBO’s, bring as additions to our area’s lodging offerings are clear and undeniable. VRBO’s can fill a visitor’s vision of a dream escape. VRBO’s also provide employment opportunities for local cleaners, contractors, and administrative professionals. Homes and cabins that might otherwise be part-time second homes become occupied with more frequency by visitors who then imbibe in our local retail, dining and activity offerings. But this only works if the rental property is compliant with regulations regarding zoning, health and lodging tax.

So what does it mean?

The proof is in the pudding folks. Since the inception of the current structure of Visit Cook County in 2010 lodging tax revenues are up over 40% in every geographical area of the county. In 2016 that sum was over $1.16 million, which represents just a fraction of the total dollars brought into our local tourism economy by visitors. Visit Cook County Executive Director Linda Jurek has put together and reworked the organizational structure of her team to provide uniquely outstanding performance results in leveraging these lodging tax dollars for our area’s success. Check out for links to the resources and to see a little more of what we do and how we do it.

Cook County News Herald by Molly O'Neill, administrative manager at Visit Cook County MN Molly O'Neill

Talking Tourism: 2017 A Year End Review | By Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: December 2017

Talking Tourism: 2017 A Year End Review | By Linda Jurek

When I woke this post-holiday morning, I knew one thing for sure – 2017 has chosen a chilly departure.  I can’t help but reflect on the year knowing we have accomplished much.

Early in 2017, the Visit Cook County team traveled to the annual Explore Minnesota Tourism Conference. It is always beneficial for us to gather with like minded professionals all working to promote Minnesota as a travel destination. The proof is in the pudding, as demonstrated by our third year winning awards for excellence in Tourism marketing. In 2017, we were the recipient of three industry awards:

  • Award of Merit – Lake Superior Storm Festival
  • Event of the Year – Lutsen 99er
  • Rising Star in Tourism Award – Linda Jurek (so very humbled)

Part of what makes our team so strong is that along with our scheduled marketing and public relations work, we remain ready to promote the unexpected.  Who knew a moose rescue story would gain so much interest?! Kjersti Vick, marketing manager, recognized the newsworthyness of this story and pushed it out to all media channels. The organic results were impressive. Over 90 stories were generated and media outlets in over 30 states shared the story bringing the Gunflint Trail and Cook County on to their TV, newspaper and digital screens for well over a week. This earned media resulted in incredible organic reach that is worth over $100K of ad value – for very little hard dollars spent.

But our success is not only luck. We also strategize and watch trends to direct our marketing and public relations outreach. For the third year, we have place an emphasis on celebrating our “dark skies” as one of our vital community assets. In 2017, our dark skies campaign gained some traction generating two major media stories. A front-page story in the Star Tribune as well as an on-air interview with KSTP TV in the Twin Cities. An estimated 500K people watched or read the story about our night sky. The results have been instant as the inquiries to our information center about “tips for viewing the northern lights” have increased dramatically and traffic to the Northern Lights page on our website increased by 22% year over year!

Of course there were the special surprises along the way. The Gunflint Trail Association hit a homerun by hosting the largest blueberry contest which brought visitors and locals to the blueberry weigh stations coveting the prizes. The Cook County Chamber’s Downtown Business Coalition continues to do great work. Grant Marais Area Tourism and Visit Cook County are able to partner with these folks and support many local events.

I work with an incredible team. In May, I calmly stated that we received approval to rebuild our website. There were a few raised eyebrows when I also informed the crew that we would accomplish this in three short months while simultaneously completing the visitor guide content. (Incidentally, the visitor guide is very popular and we distributed over 11,000 last year.) If you haven’t taken time to check out the website, please do so. The photography is stunning!

In terms of lodging tax collection, we’ve leveled off a bit but continue to see growth. For those of you that review the lodging tax report, remember to look at the apples to apples to comparison. I’ve found that many folks compare last year’s monthly totals to the current. There are many variables which affect these totals and the apples to apples compute a much truer reflection.

On behalf of Visit Cook County, Happy New Year! Please stop by for a visit. The door is always open and the coffee pot on.


Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek, executive director at Visit Cook County MN Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism: The Super Bowl of Marketing | by Maggie Barnard

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: November 2017

Talking Tourism: The Super Bowl of Marketing | by Maggie Barnard

My background is 28 years in the hotel business working for a national hotel chain starting as an on-call banquet server and working up to Roving Corporate Director of Catering & Convention Services. During those years I enjoyed being a resident of six different states and two Caribbean islands. My roving assignments were two to three months long. I took the opportunity to be familiar in a destination, getting to know people and places beyond the tourist highlights.

I’m a football fan so I was thrilled to be working in two cities that hosted the NFL’s Super Bowl: Tampa in Jan. 1991, and Miami in Feb. 2007. It was impressive to see the evolution of the festivities from 1991 to 2007. In 1991 the focus was predominantly the game and the weekend. In 2007 it was now Super Bowl week with multiple parties, fundraisers and the NFL Experience set up as a daily fan destination. The year-end player awards became a televised gala with red carpet coverage. There was such great energy walking around both cities interacting with fans and visitors. It was special to have access to peek ‘behind the curtain’ and see the plans for the pageantry and production.

The Super Bowl is the year end celebration and pinnacle of a season. In comparison, our annual Fall Gala celebration is teeny tiny but feels the same for us. We look back on our campaigns like Storm Season and Hygge as well as letting the world know we are looking out for our moose. The Chamber of Commerce honors the accomplishments of our local businesses and leaders. Like the NFL, Visit Cook County is passionate about our organization and product, we love what we celebrate and invite everyone to join in.

As the tourism destination management organization for Cook County, MN we care about the success of our communities. We dedicate ourselves to telling the stories of our destination because we love the people we live with and where we live. We understand our responsibility to make our destination as successful as possible. We are happy to be a marketing asset for our Cook County businesses and organizations that want to take advantage of our outreach. One of my responsibilities with Visit Cook County is communicating these marketing opportunities.

We launched a new, beautiful, second version of our website this past August. We investigate and invest in new advertising mediums and social media channels. We make marketing access very affordable: our Basic Level costs a little over $20/month. This level includes a website listing with a photo, contact info, short description and a business listing in the 15,000 printed annual Visitor Guides. Throughout the year we communicate new marketing opportunities such as contests, feature stories or seasonal and event promotions that involve larger media markets. To all of our dedicated, hardworking business owners and organization leaders, we invite you to buy-in and celebrate our little Super Bowl of marketing every year.

Cook County News Herald by Maggie Barnard, communications manager at Visit Cook County MN Maggie Barnard

Talking Tourism: Embracing resilience, post-summer stampede | by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: October 2017

Talking Tourism: Embracing resilience, post-summer stampede | by Linda Jurek

As described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the tipping point is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”. As we approach the end of October, many of us have reached our own personal tipping point. We’ve seen streaming lines of traffic making their first or possibly their one hundredth trip to the North Shore, festivals most weekends during July, August, and September, thousands of donuts and craft beers served, and the exit of our summer workforce far too early. Need I say more? Summer is our high season and much of our workforce is tired. We long for the quiet days. Our personal Hygge.

Having grown up here in the 60s and 70s, I vividly remember the excitement of summer. I anticipated the return of summer friends and the multitude of new faces. Although I would never have described my summer employment as working in the hospitality industry, that’s what I did. I washed dishes at the Birch Terrace, cleaned rooms at the Seawall,  stocked the shoe department at Humphrey’s, picked rocks at Lutsen Mountains to earn my ski pass and waited tables at the Harbor Inn.  There were over 80 students in my graduating class; a community workforce right in the high school.

When I arrived back in Cook County during the summer of 2013, my role seemed rather straight forward. I grew up here. I visited often and love northeastern Minnesota. Building the shoulder seasons and drawing visitors to this place seemed like a simple and natural thing to do. Even though Visit Cook County was relatively new in formation, the guidance received by a seasoned board of directors representing our entire county made the task less daunting.

Before returning to Cook County, I had traveled the Upper Peninsula of Michigan many times. I noticed that many abandoned hotels and restaurants dotted the roadway on my journey. These once thriving towns and businesses were reduced down to relics of days gone by.  I knew I didn’t want to see that happen here.

What have I learned? It is complicated. Our economy is driven by tourism. It was in the 70s and remains much the same today. We are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by the Superior National Forest, an international border and the greatest of the great – Lake Superior. Where 95% of the land in Cook County is federal or state land, we have an advantage of space and preservation built into our foundation. What has changed is the tipping point. We are now faced with the need to protect our J1 and H2B work programs. Our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state and the ebb and flow of our tourism economy more apparent than ever. I am an optimist. We will persevere if we work together to continue building our community and economy. Thank You for all of your hard work this summer and fall season!

So tired business owner, happy donut eater, and weary hospitality industry pro. Help us celebrate by joining us on October 24th, at the Summit Chalet at Lutsen Mountains for the 8th annual Fall Gala hosted by the Cook County Chamber and Visit Cook County. It is an evening of laughter, food and camaraderie. Pre-registration is recommended at by Sunday, October 22 but walk-ins are welcome.

Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek, executive director at Visit Cook County MN Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism: The Scenic Route has the Best Stories | by Anna Klobuchar

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: September 2017

Talking Tourism: The Scenic Route has the Best Stories | by Anna Klobuchar

Have you ever stopped into the Visitor Information Center in Grand Marais? Or maybe the one in Tofte? The goal of the information centers are to help make those stories for our visitors rich and memorable. Keeping in mind that word of mouth goes hand in hand with marketing, it’s important that we ensure our visitors have an unforgettable time in Cook County. Can you guess the number one question our visitors ask? Overwhelmingly it is “Where can I see a moose?” a close second: “Is there a chance of catching Northern Lights tonight? Where can I go?” Occasionally other more obscure questions come in like: “We are making tiramisu tonight. Where can I find the freshest Mascarpone cheese?” The info center team is the direct ambassador for every person who walks through the door or calls or emails us for information.

Annual raw numbers:

Yearly Info Center Visitor Engagement: 21,985.  (Tofte Info Center: 5685, Grand Marais Info Center: 16,300.)

Grand Marais Annual Phone Requests:  1,613

Email Requests: 1048

Yes, the numbers may appear daunting, but do keep in mind, these people are planning a getaway or on vacation, and their mindset is relaxed.  99.5% of them come through the door in a great mood and ready for an adventure. Some have spent 51 weeks in a cubicle saving all year so they can spend one week in the BWCAW.  Frequently, they share a story or two. From dewy eyed newlyweds who want to go hiking (Honeymoon Trail or Sweetheart’s Bluff, of course), to the highly caffeinated art gallery hoppers waiting for us in the morning parking lot to flip over the ‘open’ sign, we provide them with the data – printed or anecdotal – they need. We have many tools at our disposal to accomplish our goal. We stock referential material ranging from trees to flowers, moose to mushrooms, state parks to salmon, as well as the dry data rules and regulations for hunting, fishing, and boating licensures. We also have literature on border crossing mandates and regional Canadian information.

Our colorful and informative Visitor Guide has proven to be very popular with not only visitors, but with state info centers and state parks. These agencies request boxes of them, and to date, we have distributed 11,800. Lastly, our comprehensive website, has rich content on lodging, events, dining, shopping, and the incredible recreational opportunities throughout our wilderness.

The information centers do a lot more than just talk with visitors and answer phone calls. In the busy months we maintain a spreadsheet of all the lodging properties that have cancellations or last minute vacancies. We facilitate connecting a last minute caller or visitor to a potential room that’s just been made available.  However, we do not maintain reservations, nor do we set or control room pricing but we are there to help a last minute traveler find a place to stay. We also generate a list of business hours for dining and retail during the off-season.

The breathtaking wilderness and majestic Lake Superior have been bringing visitors here for years. We were discovered as a destination location even before Highway 61 connected us to the world. We meet families who have been coming here for four or even five generations! They share their memories and their stories.  A new visitor’s future story is as unique as each face that comes through our door, and we’re here to help them write it.

We are proud to be the welcoming information ambassadors to countless visitors throughout the year. Our knowledgeable team includes: Bill Wehseler, in Tofte, and Carolyn Higgins, Judy Boots, and Dan Helmerson, in Grand Marais.  We are open daily from Memorial Day to MEA Weekend with a seasonal reduction occurs from November through May. We encourage you to stop by sometime and visit with us. Odds are, we’ll help you discover a new side of Cook County even if you’ve lived here for years. 

Cook County News Herald by Anna Klobuchar, info center coordinator at Visit Cook County MN Anna Klobuchar

Talking Tourism: A fresh look for | by Kjersti Vick

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: August 2017

Talking Tourism: A fresh look for | by Kjersti Vick

If you have not been to recently, I suggest you take a few minutes to do so. Throughout the summer the Visit Cook County team, led by marketing partners Giant Voices of Duluth, reimagined our website.

The process of redesigning a website is both exhilarating and arduous. How do you make something both informative AND visually compelling? Our process of discovery began by virtually traveling the globe evaluating the websites of similar DMO and travel organizations. Not only did it add a few destinations to our own travel bucket lists but this research provided us with a firsthand look at content from the perspective of a visitor. What features do other organizations offer, how much information is too much, and how to describe our unique value proposition in a place as geographically diverse as Cook County? After 12 countries, 8 states and several regional destination websites our objective became clear. We had the information people are looking for, what we needed was a better way to find it. On the refreshed website, you will still find much of the same great content such as Northern Lights viewing tips, a complete calendar of events, comprehensive lodging directory, and the coveted Grand Marais Harbor Cam but you will also be able to easily discover new adventures and Hot Deals thanks to more intuitive navigation. One of the most exciting new features is the Trip Planner which allows users to add events, local businesses and interests to a customizable trip itinerary that can easily be printed or emailed to travel companions.

Along with the enhanced usability is an increased opportunity for local businesses to extend their reach on our website. A revamped Hot Deals feature that appears on the bottom of most content pages is one of the exciting new marketing opportunities available. Visit Cook County is funded primarily through the collection of lodging tax paid by the visitor to the lodging entity; the remainder is collected through grants as well as sponsorships. Any establishment that collects and submits lodging tax is eligible to receive a complimentary listing. Retail, dining, and other businesses may be listed on our website and annual Visitor Guide by becoming a stakeholder member. Any businesses who wish to know more about new marketing opportunities with Visit Cook County should contact Maggie Barnard at

The new officially launched on August 9. In this short timeframe, we are already seeing an increase in traffic and user engagement. The number of 2017 Visitor Guide downloads have increased by 15% and signups for our monthly e-newsletter by 40% and we are just getting started!

Our reach goes well beyond our website with a robust marketing and public relations outreach plan, we reach thousands of potential visitors daily. Using a multidimensional marketing approach that includes strategic billboard placement, targeted emailers, and social media to name a few, we are retargeting our audience with multiple touchpoints keeping the Visit Cook County brand top-of-mind. Driving visitors to our website is a major component of enhancing the tourism experience. Through the website, we will ensure that those visitors have accurate information, fun ideas, and exposure to all seasons and locations in Schroeder, Tofte, Lutsen, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail, and Grand Portage. In the past few years, we’ve seen significant growth in lodging tax in addition to the general sense of increased traffic we all see on our daily commutes. It is clear, what we are doing is working and that is exciting.

Cook County News Herald by Kjersti Vick, marketing manager at Visit Cook County MN Kjersti Vick

Talking Tourism: Drawing visitors in, one registration at a time | by Katie Krantz

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: August 2017

Talking Tourism: Drawing visitors in, one registration at a time | by Katie Krantz

At Visit Cook County, we continually strategize on new ways to draw visitors to our area during slower times. We’ve generated ideas like waterfalls, storm season, hygge and most recently, we’ve marketed Cook County as a training ground. Many of these marketing campaigns are bolstered by an event component. Event marketing can be an effective way to advertise visiting our area during a certain time period. For example, Storm Festival occurs during the 2nd weekend in November. However, we make sure to let visitors know that if they can’t visit during the event weekend, they can likely enjoy storms anytime throughout the month of November. Even if they don’t come this year, they now realize that November is a great time to experience the power of a Lake Superior storm.

Events are multi-purpose when it comes to advertising and public relations. A great example (which you are probably familiar with) is the Lutsen 99er. The Lutsen 99er, an ultra-marathon mountain bike race, grew from 80 participants in 2011 to 1800 in 2017 and is a proven economic booster. According to a study done by the University of Minnesota, the average bicycle event visitor spends $121.20 per day, and 93.4% dine out while they are here. The Lutsen 99er weekend is profitable and helps our local businesses remain prosperous in that early part of summer.

But that’s not all the Lutsen 99er does for our area. That one weekend in June showcases Cook County biking trails as a year-round attraction. It exposes Lutsen Mountains as not just a winter ski resort, but a summer destination as well as a summer destination while at the same time enticing visitors to come back for a winter experience as well.  It flaunts our big, beautiful lake and our national forest. You can bet that the Visit Cook County team is at the Lutsen 99er every year making sure the participants know all this area has to offer in the winter, spring, summer and fall.

Visit Cook County also worked with the event coordinator for the 99er to bring a new event to Cook County, the Norpine Fat Bike Classic. This event brought 200 fat tire bikers and their families to the area in January. Coming full circle, Visit Cook County worked with the Forest Service, DNR and the Norpine Trail Association supporting opening the trail to fat tire biking all winter long.

Cook County is unique in its ability to collect a 1% lodging tax which helps promote and fund events. We’ve also spoken to many event planners that are surprised to learn that the team at Visit Cook County is here to help their event succeed. While it might seems like events are a one-time opportunity to bring visitors to the area, we must remember the awareness that is built can have a year-round economic impact. Any time we can get a new visitor to fall in love with our area, the ROI is significant. Events are a marketing tool, and Visit Cook County is capitalizing on that.

Cook County News Herald by Katie Krantz, event resource manager at Visit Cook County MN Katie Krantz

Talking Tourism: Increased media coverage of Cook County events and its hidden gems is not accidental | By Lynn Ingrid Nelson, LINPR 

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: July 2017

Talking Tourism: Increased media coverage of Cook County events and its hidden gems is not accidental | By Lynn Ingrid Nelson, LINPR 

Since you don’t live in the Twin Cities, you may not realize that the buzz about Grand Marais down here has grown by 10-fold during the past few years. I do, however, hope you’ve noticed a corresponding increase in tourist traffic.

In early 2014, my PR firm was hired by Visit Cook County (VCC) to expand the county’s media relations outreach. We work regularly with VCC’s staff and their marketing agency in Duluth to alert news media in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Thunder Bay (and throughout Cook County) about tourism opportunities in Grand Marais and the surrounding communities.

So far, we’ve had the great pleasure of working on stories that range from music written about the Gunflint Mail Run, to the renovation of the Beaver House, to the wonders of waterfall season, to new gondolas at Lutsen Mountains (Yes, we work with Jim Vick, too.).

In addition to pitching news stories about tourist attractions in Cook County, each month we work with VCC to promote the fun events it sponsors in the area, including the Lutsen 99er, the North Shore Water Festival, Unplugged, and Radio Waves, to name a few of the 20 or more Cook County events that we share with the media throughout the state and Thunder Bay each year.

What makes a good media story?

You may wonder how we decide what stories to share. While PR is as much of an art as it is a science, here are some of our considerations:

  • A good media story must pass a busy editor’s “so what?” test. The editor’s primary customer is the reader, so she has a good eye for what readers care about, and she looks at every story from that perspective.
  • It may include a historical perspective like the work we did on the Ham Lake fire anniversary, which was covered extensively by MPR and the Star Tribune.
  • A good story is not trying to sell If sharing info has an overt sales objective, it’s a better idea to “buy an ad”.
  • A good story tends to be about something new, prominent (everyone knows about the subject – like the Lutsen Resort sale story) or unusual (like the time the baby moose was rescued from Hungry Jack Lake). Thanks to VCC’s fast response and a little help from us, more than 200 media outlets picked up that story, sharing it with over 300 million people.


Why engage in media contests like ‘Coolest Small Town in America’?

I’m sure you’ve been asked to vote for Grand Marais, so that it can win a top spot in a magazine or newspaper contest. While being solicited for these votes does get tiring, millions of people have now heard about Grand Marais and its surrounding area because you and thousands of others have voted  for Grand Marais in USA Today’s Best Midwestern Small Town, Outside Magazine’s The 16 Best Places to Live in the U.S. 2016, and Budget Travel’s 2015 Coolest Small Town in America contests.

News stories add up to big awareness

So far this year, with the help of the VCC staff and Giant Voices, we’ve placed approximately 250 news stories and 200 media calendar notices about events and happenings in Cook County. Some stories about Cook County just seem to happen on their own, but we’re confident that sending news releases several times every month keeps Cook County top of mind with reporters and editors.

If you have a great story idea, and/or a compelling photo or video, don’t hesitate to share it with the VCC team. We love spreading the word about things to do and the hidden gems throughout Cook County.

Lynn Ingrid Nelson is the president of LIN Public Relations Inc. See for more information. Lynn welcomes your comments and possible story ideas. You can contact her at

Cook County News Herald by Lynn Ingrid Nelson, LINPR Lynn Ingrid Nelson is the president of LIN Public Relations Inc. See for more information. Lynn welcomes your comments and possible story ideas. You can contact her at

Talking Tourism: Creating a Giant Brand | by Pascha Apter – CEO of Giant Voices, Inc.

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: July 2017

Talking Tourism: Creating a Giant Brand | by Pascha Apter

These are exciting times in Cook County! Summer has arrived, tourism is booming and Visit Cook County recently refreshed their company brand. The updated logo and tagline were designed to better identify where Cook County is located in Minnesota as well as capture the feeling locals and tourists say they experience by living and playing in this marvelous part of the world.

To begin the rebranding process, Visit Cook County sent out an electronic survey to residents and tourists asking them to share what it is that makes Cook County unique in their hearts and minds. The research showed there are millions of different reasons why people visit Cook County in the first place but once they do, they are hooked! The research also proved that explaining where Cook County is located in Minnesota is not an easy task. Statements such as: “Along the North Shore of Lake Superior,” or, “In the northeastern corner of the state of Minnesota,” and “Inside Minnesota’s Arrowhead,” while accurate, were difficult to incorporate into a statement that needed to be directional, inspirational and short.

The decision was made to update the Visit Cook County logo with a green and blue color palette representing Cook County’s strong ties to nature, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters.  An energetic orange was added to the color palette to clearly identify where Cook County is located in Minnesota.  Also, the tagline “Naturally Unforgettable” was chosen to solidify Cook County’s position as a place that naturally leaves an impression on people and keeps them coming back all their lives.

How to determine when to rebrand

With the launch of the Visit Cook County rebrand, now is a good time to take a look at your company’s brand and determine if there is a way you could be making a more powerful and meaningful statement to your prospects.

There are five key elements that make up a brand. Every company has these elements whether they were intentionally chosen or not. The key to success is to ensure you have carefully considered each one of these elements and designed them to leave prospects with the right impression.

Visual components of a brand

  • Company name – it goes without saying a company name is an important part of a brand. After all, it is what people will most commonly refer to you by.
  • Logo – a logo is an art element used to help better differentiate one company from another. A logo is often used to enhance a company name, or better identify what a company offers. A strong logo will also incorporate brand colors and typography that accurately represent the personality of the organization.
  • Tagline – a tagline or positioning statement is commonly used along with a logo to better identify what makes a company unique. Strong taglines are unique, clever and short in length.

Emotional components of a brand

  • Brand values – brand values radiate from the core of your business and should drive the visual elements of your brand. Defining 3 – 5 key values your company stands for is the key to long-term business success.
  • Brand personality – just like people, companies have personalities as well. Take time to design the personality you want your company to have in order to better relate to your prospects.

The most important key to branding success is to ensure every person who works for your organization understands your brand values, expresses your brand personality and clearly understands what it is that separates your company from your peers and competition. By taking time to clearly define these brand elements, your company may become “Naturally Unforgettable” in the hearts and minds of your prospects as well.


Cook County News Herald by Pascha Apter, CEO Giant Voices, Inc.

Talking Tourism: Make Your Voice Smile | by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: June 2017

Talking Tourism: Make Your Voice Smile | by Linda Jurek

Our visitors travel to Cook County for many reasons.  For several decades, we have been a premier vacation destination and a number of those once a year visitors seek to make northeastern Minnesota their home.  Whether our visitors travel here to disconnect or to immerse themselves in art, culinary delights, a BWCAW paddle, or an athletic event, the customer experience ranks high.

Clearly, what we are doing is working. As spring turns to summer, we transition into very high traffic season including people, bikes, and vehicles. We all feel it whether you work in hospitality or the hospital ER or are just trying to cross the highway. There simply are more people here. A recent branding survey conducted by Visit Cook County positions the kindness of people as a top three reason to return to our area.  That makes me feel good and it should you as well.

As long ago as I can remember, we’ve welcomed our visitors.  Dan Helmerson, Info Center employee extraordinaire, shares weekly historic photos and fascinating facts on his personal Facebook album “Cook County Nostalgia Too” and it is very clear, we have been a community of welcoming our guests for over 70 years.

I know the days and nights get long but imagine never seeing new faces or hiring a diverse employee pool with our international workers. When it comes to a customer’s experience, all of us can get the big things right but it is the little things that differentiate one favorite employee from another or one business choice over the next. The book Hospitality From the Heart explains a key additive.  Yup, you guessed it.  Heart.  The book explained that if we engage with heart the results will show improved employee engagement, better morale, extraordinary service, customer loyalty and of course, increased profits.  Attentiveness and recognition cost absolutely nothing.  Add a little personalization and boom, your visitor will return and more importantly pass along a positive recommendation regarding the wonderful experience in Cook County.

I close with a quote from Maya Angelou – “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”


Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism: Making Headlines via Marketing | By Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: May 2017

Talking Tourism: Making Headlines via Marketing | By Linda Jurek

Let’s set the record straight!  As I discussed in last month’s article, our local economy is supported by over 80% tourism.  For all the reasons we choose to live here, our visitors choose to visit.  Winning awards places us on the state and national radar and bringing people here to visit is the primary goal of our organization.  I’d like to touch on some of the awards we’ve recently won and how there is significant benefit to Cook County.

Visitors hear about our community from a number of sources. I often ask people those questions and the conversations are rewarding. Their answers vary, from coming here as a child to seeing one of our billboards in downtown Minneapolis, but it’s always fun to learn why people are visiting.  Based on these casual conversations, we feel strongly that one of the reasons new visitors often choose to visit is from word of mouth from a friend, social media or article in their favorite publication. Looking at the significant increase in lodging tax the last few years, we believe the media exposure we earned by winning the Budget Travel “America’s Coolest Small Town” award in 2015 plays a significant role in the increase.

Since bringing visitors here and maximizing our tourism traffic is a key goal for Visit Cook County, we do not shy away from the nominations we receive. The publicity from Budget Travel’s “America’s Coolest Small Town” award of 2015 and the most recent award of Best Small Midwestern Town by USA Today have proven their benefits already by creating a media synergy that has lead to more accolades. Within one week of winning small Midwestern town, we are mentioned here:

In addition, we have been ranked as a top destination for hiking, paddling, eating, rock skipping, moose viewing, etc. You get the picture. We also have been recognized by Explore MN with five awards during the past two years.  These awards have been newsworthy resulting in regional and national media attention.  These public relation gems have integrated seamlessly into our robust marketing efforts.

“Working with Visit Cook County is truly enjoyable. We have the good fortune of marketing one of the most beautiful tourism destinations in the world, and we have gotten some tremendous results during the past three years,” said Pascha Apter, CEO of Giant Voices in Duluth.

In addition to an economic boom, community pride blossoms following award wins. While I’m not going to try and convert those of you that dislike these contests, I will challenge you to think a little outside of the box. We’ve had people complain on social media as well as tell us directly that we need to stop this publicity  “No more people.”  It’s important to understand that the services we enjoy 12 months a year are supported by visitor dollars and the increased economic boost assures financial health during the slower seasons. I stand prepared to wait in a longer line, search an extra minute for a parking place and wait and wave at the pedestrians crossing the highway waving their orange crossing flags. Grateful appreciation is where I am at.  Join me?

We recently conducted a tagline and branding survey.  We asked people what they loved about Northeastern Minnesota and how would they describe our location.  Guess what?  In the top three loves – it is the people!  The friendliness and welcoming personalities of local Cook County residents makes visitors feel at home here. Now that makes me sing with pride.  Thanks local businesses, thanks community, and thanks to you!

Now buckle up!  Summer is upon us.

For more goodness, check out these recent articles:

Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism: What does Visit Cook County do? | By Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: April 2017

Talking Tourism: What does Visit Cook County do? | By Linda Jurek

Have you ever found yourself wondering what does Visit Cook County do?  Where do they get their financial support for all this marketing?  Or maybe you’ve wondered, who is this who is responsible for attracting all of these visitors to our town causing such an economic boom. Welcome to Talking Tourism, a new monthly article aimed at providing insight into our organization and the impact of tourism in Cook County written for the Cook County News Herald.

As the executive director for Visit Cook County, I am pleased to be tasked with our first segment.  You can expect to hear from other members of the Visit Cook County team as well as marketing partners and board members.  We hope to provide a clearer picture of our organization, its structure, and our goals.

Because industry jargon, acronyms plague our business. We are trying to demystify who is VCC (formerly known as CCVB or CCEVB). Here is a short list of what we are, what we are not and how closely we are related to some our sister organizations.

  • We ARE a destination marketing organization. Our mission is to build brand recognition of the region and increase lodging tax dollars.
  • We are NOT a chamber of commerce. We DO support local tourism business but are not a policy driven organization.
  • We are NOT a part of county government. We are an independent 501(c) 6 not-for-profit organization that is governed by a board of directors that derives from the local lodging associations.
  • We are NOT the Economic Development Authority (EDA). The EDA is tasked with helping to diversify the economy by assisting in businesses development and workforce sustainability issues.

Nearly everything is impacted by tourism and when the leaves drop from the trees and many want to lock the gate at the county line, we must realize that our economy is 85% tourism based.  That has not changed is significantly for many years.  The allure of our area remains imbedded in the hearts of many.

Like I previously stated, Visit Cook County is a destination marketing organization (DMO).  Originally, founded as the Cook County Events and Visitors Bureau (CCEVB) we transitioned to Cook County Visitors Bureau (CCVB), neither of those titles accurately described who we were until we became VISIT Cook County – the regional DMO.  Not every DMO is a convention and visitor bureau (CVB) as is the case with Cook County.  Because we do not have large meeting facilities, we do not focus our marketing efforts on bringing large conventions to our corner of the state.

How are we supported?  Lodging properties in the Cook County lodging tax district (from Schroeder to Grand Portage) are required by Minnesota State statute to collect lodging tax for any short-term nightly rental. This includes hotels and resorts but also independent VRBO’s, canoe outfitters and B&B’s.  We are required to have the lodging tax collections be processed by the auditor’s office and the amount of tax collected by each property is confidential.  The lodging properties select their payment schedule (monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, etc.) We also offer marketing opportunities via our website, visitor guide, and information center that any local business is welcome to participate in. What do we do the dollars collected?  We market to potential visitors!!

We continue to hone our skills and while we do partner with a marketing agency and media relations firm, we know how important it is for our community to embrace what we do.  More importantly, we need to love our visitors.  They are the bread and butter for many.

Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek

Second annual Hygge Festival to be hosted in Grand Marais Feb. 8-15, 2018

Voyageur Brewing Hygge Festival image

 Second annual Hygge Festival to be hosted in Grand Marais Feb. 8-15, 2018

Warm up your Valentine’s Day celebration with a fireplace tour Feb. 8-15 in Grand Marais, Minn. and surrounding Cook County towns

Cook County, Minn. – February 5, 2018 – The Danish concept of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah) has been around for a long time. It refers to the ritual of embracing life’s simple pleasures. Feeling relaxed, cozy and surrounded by the warmth of family, friends, community and fire all encompass the idea of hygge. It began to catch on in the United States last year.

Trend-setting Grand Marais hosted the first annual Hygge Festival last February. In honor of the second annual Hygge Festival Feb. 8-15, participating resort and restaurant owners throughout Cook County will keep their fireplaces blazing during the month of February, so visitors can drop by to warm their fingers and toes, and possibly enjoy a warm or cold beverage. A dozen or more fireplaces will be featured on the tour, including wood, gas, outdoor hearths and fire pits.

“The whole point of hygge is to slow down and get cozy,” says Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County. “After enjoying activities like snowshoeing through the woods, stargazing, drinking hot chocolate and watching Lake Superior, we hope visitors will take time to sit by the fire and snuggle.  And we hope some visitors rise to the challenge of relaxing next to all of the fireplaces featured on the tour.”

The second annual festival will feature some new events:

  • Fat tire biking demonstrations
  • Knitting lessons
  • Cross-country skiing tour at twilight
  • Fireplace tour featuring some of the most historic fireplaces in Cook County

Favorite events from last year will also be back:

  • Hygge themed menus
  • Bonfires with live music
  • Mukluk ball

For more info about the second annual hygge festival and for dates and times, please check out:

About Visit Cook County 

Visit Cook County encompasses the northeastern Minnesota communities of Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail and Grand Portage, commonly referred to as “the Arrowhead” and the “North Shore of Lake Superior”.  Grand Marais, Minn., has earned several national accolades — most recently it was named USA Today’s Best Midwestern Small Town, Outside Magazine’s The 16 Best Places to Live in the U.S. 2016, and Budget Travel’s 2015 Coolest Small Town in America. Rekindle your sense of adventure by exploring the Superior National Forest or paddling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Discover what makes the communities of Cook County, Minn. “Naturally Unforgettable.” Connect on social media using #visitcc, Twitter @CookCoVisitors, Facebook, or Instagram @donorthmn. Learn more at


2019 Hygge Festival Dates: February 8 – 14, 2019