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Most tourists have ‘very positive’ perceptions of county, survey shows

The results of Otter Tail Country Tourism Association’s branding study are in, and they reveal an interesting conundrum for those trying to market the area to bring in more visitors.

The study revealed that most people who have visited Otter Tail County have positive perceptions of it; however, one of the things they like best is the “small town feel” of the area.

So, as a couple of association members pointed out after reviewing the results of the study, their challenge in the future will be to foster and promote growth without losing that “small town feel.”

Results were announced at an association meeting on Monday evening in Ottertail.

The study consisted of a survey of 907 respondents – most of them prior visitors to Otter Tail County, but none of them residents here.

The association contracted with University of Minnesota Center for Small Towns to conduct the survey, in order to inform its marketing and promotion of tourism. The Center for Small Towns partnered with the university’s extension service to conduct the survey.

Results revealed a mix of strengths and weaknesses in the area, in the minds of visitors.

Survey respondents said that when they think about Otter Tail County, they think of its “beautiful nature,” “relaxing atmosphere,” and about how it’s “an escape from chaotic daily life.” Much of that has to do with the “authentic lakes country experience,” the “friendly people” and the “intimate small town feel” of the area.

A very high percentage of respondents – from 85 to 91 percent – recalled these characteristics of the area in a positive way.

On the other end of the spectrum, less than 45 percent of respondents had positive perceptions of the area’s “hunting opportunities,” “nightlife and entertainment” options, “cultural attractions” and “exciting atmosphere.”

Falling in the middle were many other categories, such as “good beaches,” “good fishing” and “high lake water quality,” which, in all cases, 60 to at least 80 percent of respondents felt good about.

“Overall, the survey was very positive,” said Ryan Pesch, an extension educator who worked on the study.

He stressed that tourists to this area are very loyal, with 86 percent of survey respondents saying they plan to visit again, 75 percent saying they will recommend the region to their friends and family, and 74 percent saying Otter Tail County is one of their “preferred” travel destinations.

“That’s something you guys should be very proud of,” Pesch said while presenting the survey results to the tourism association on Monday.

The greatest determinant of loyalty was a high ranking of that “intimate, small town feel,” according to Pesch. Respondents who valued that atmosphere over and above all other attributes were the most likely to return.

On the whole, survey respondents were more than satisfied with their travels in the area. The majority of tourists find local businesses to have personable staff, high levels of cleanliness and an unpolluted environment.

Most respondents’ perceptions of Otter Tail County were most influenced by their own experiences here, or by friends and family or the internet.

The age distribution of respondents covers a range from 16 to 83 with a median age of 47 (the majority of respondents had no kids at home). They also had a significantly higher household income than the national average, and represent many areas around the Midwest and beyond, including notable numbers from Fargo, N.D. and the Twin Cities metro area. Most prefer to stay at resorts or hotels, or with family and friends, while here.

Funnily, 43 percent of respondents said they could recall the “symbol” of Otter Tail County as a tourism destination, when in fact that was a trick question – Otter Tail County has no official symbol. That’s one of the things the association is thinking about creating as part of its branding efforts.

As they move forward, association members plan to “market” Otter Tail County “in an intentional way” to match visitor’s perceptions of the area, according to Nick Leonard, an association board member, who spoke briefly on Monday. The group’s goal will be to translate the data from this study into a brand that can be used in future marketing efforts.