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What the rest of the country is saying about the Twin Cities

Visitors spent $6.8 billion in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area in 2012, so the stakes are high.

The number of visitors to the area grew from 26.8 million in 2011 to 27.9 million last year.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Let’s admit it: We all want to know what people are saying about us behind our backs.

Travel websites are packed with profiles of the Twin Cities, tips on what to see and do and reviews written by people who have visited the area.

The information is weighed by potential visitors who are planning vacation trips and by companies and trade associations looking for meeting sites.

The financial stakes are high. Visitors spent $6.8 billion in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area in 2012, an increase of 5.5 percent over 2011, according to a study conducted by D.K. Shifflet & Associates.

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The number of visitors to the area grew from 26.8 million in 2011 to 27.9 million last year.

Lisa O’Donnell of Portland, Ore., who visited the Twin Cities this week, offers some insights into the factors that prompted her to book the trip.

She was exiting the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul when  we spoke, and she says the area’s abundant cultural offerings are part of the reason she arranged to meet a friend from the Washington, D.C., area here.

‘So hip’

Neither had ever been to Minnesota before, and they wanted to visit museums (Minneapolis’ Mill City Museum was a big hit) hear live music (they saw a show at the Dakota Jazz Club) and shop.

“We’ve been surprised,” O’Donnell says. “I didn’t know Minneapolis and St. Paul were so hip, and the Mall of America blew our minds.”

O’Donnell poked around online for hotel and restaurant suggestions but cost was a big consideration.

She read profiles of the two cities on tripadvisor.com, which helped her and her friend settle on their destination. The site calls Minneapolis “an attractive and fun getaway” and says St. Paul is “ideal for families and those who like to explore on foot.”

That praise contributed to the pair’s decision to rule out other cities halfway between their homes, including Chicago and Denver.

Representatives of the Cities’ convention and visitors organizations, Kristen Montag of Meet Minneapolis and Adam Johnson of Visit St. Paul, agree that cost and the availability of fun activities are key elements in visitors’ destination choices. The “Minnesota Nice” cliché doesn’t hurt either, both said.

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Online reviews matter and they monitor what’s posted on travel sites, they say, but they rarely respond to critiques — although Johnson once volunteered to give a personal tour to one poster who didn’t take him up on the offer.

A University of Minnesota profile of visitors to the Twin Cities metro area in the summer of 2012 found that 15 percent used online travel sites and the same percentage read online reviews before arriving here.

Here’s a taste of what online guides have to say about Minneapolis and St. Paul:

  • Fodors.com lists the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood as recommended sights and praises the Cities’ “extensive repertoire of cultural events.”
  • Travelandleisure.com calls the area “remarkably vibrant” no matter what the temperature is and says “don’t miss” activities include canoeing on Lake Calhoun and touring St. Paul’s F. Scott Fitzgerald-related sites.

  • Lonelyplanet.com ranked the Twin Cities No. 8 on its list of top 10 U.S. travel destinations for 2013, citing Minneapolis’ bike friendliness and the metro area’s dining and music scenes. Locales ranked higher on Lonely Planet’s list were Louisville, Ky.; Fairbanks, Alaska; San Juan Islands, Wash.; Philadelphia; American Samoa; California’s Eastern Sierra region; Northern Maine.

  • Virtualtourist.com highlights criticism from visitors as well as praise and includes comments that encapsulate destinations “in a nutshell.”

Some gripes

A Virtual Tourist user with the handle “Faracy” called Minneapolis “cheaper than Seattle, trendier than Milwaukee” but complained about the “lack of anything truly old, cultural or significant.”

Other gripes came from “Seabiscuit,” who wrote, “Cold, cold, cold. Then hotter n’ hell,” and “Midwesterner19,” who describes Minneapolis as a “boring, yawn town.”

On the other hand, “Sam1999” called it an “amazing city that welcomes you with open arms.”

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St. Paul got some whacks from Virtual Tourist users, too. “Robyn RLP” wrote, “No ocean, no mountains.” But “Profsmiley” likes its “art exhibitions, coffee houses, fairs, outdoor activities.”

Montag and Johnson say they still have to counter misconceptions and stereotypes about the Twin Cities.

For St. Paul, Johnson says, it’s that the city is “Minneapolis’ sleepy, boring older brother. Truth is, there is a ton of stuff to do, places to eat and ways to have fun in St. Paul.”

Weather factor

Montag says some people “seriously think that it snows here year-round.”

“We actually hear from people who think that it’s winter here in the summertime,” she says. “Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s also interesting that people think our winters are more difficult than other northern climate cities.”

There’s a positive side to Minnesota winters, Montag says. “We know how to clear snow pretty rapidly, our airport has less delays than any other in the country due to weather and we have winter sports and activities down.”

O’Donnell, the tourist from Oregon, would consider a return visit in the winter months.

“You wouldn’t even notice below-zero temperatures in the Mall of America,” she says.