So Winona had an exciting run in the spotlight for the last couple of months – its dazzling scenery splashed across six million television sets a couple of times a week while music played and its virtues were extolled in a voice over. From a camera perched high on the bluffs, viewers saw the Mississippi River Valley and the city of Winona, which rose up like a colorful, church-spired jewel in a sea of green and blue. It was beautiful — jaw-droppingly, mesmerizingly beautiful, and if it had been an advertising campaign, it would have cost millions (actually, $335,000 per 30 seconds. No really, I looked it up.)
Which, of course, Winona could never afford. Visit Winona would have to win the lottery for that kind of marketing campaign.
Well actually, it kind of did.
You see, it was Winonan Tim Olstad who had two spectacular months in the spotlight as a contestant on the X Factor,while us tourism-minded folks clung to his back like a wildly excited monkey along the the ride. As he was singing his way to the hearts of millions each week he did something else kind of spectacular — he put Winona on a main-stream, prime-time stage, and I have no doubt that there are a few hundred thousand 20-something women Google-mapping Winona right now.
At the beginning of most of his songs, clips would roll of our pretty bluffs and our charming downtown and Tim casting a line on the river and saying a few nice words about the city, and I believe that there has to be a viewing audience out there that fell in love with Winona. How could you not? It looked like a postcard, the kind of place people in big cities wistfully think about strolling down the streets of when they want to get away from the rat race. To have those images attached to one of the audience’s favorite singers – it was exposure that money can’t buy. I don’t know Tim, but when he gets back to Winona, I feel like I should at least buy the guy drinks. For the rest of his life.
So what’s the big deal, you say, about people with no connection to Winona seeing pictures of it and knowing where it is? Like, they’ll probably never come here anyway, right? Well, here’s a fun factoid: Research shows that most people make travel decisions using either recommendations from people they know or recollections of places they’re familiar with. So yeah, maybe folks in California and Texas aren’t planning to board a plane and land at Max Conrad Field (uh, that’s the name of the Winona airport in case you haven’t flown in lately), but maybe there are some folks sitting in Chicago or Milwaukee or Cottage Grove thinking, “Gosh, that sure was a pretty town.” And maybe the next time they’re drumming their fingers on a desk trying to decide what to do for the weekend, they’ll think of us and remember how we’re just down the road. We are within a four-hour drive of literally millions of people – quite a few more of whom know about Winona right now. If a tiny fraction of them decided to check us out, we’d be selling space to pitch tents in our front yards. As a matter of fact, I’m already planning to do this when those hoards of girls show up for Tim – I’ve got the plots taped off already.
The good news is that Winona is ready for them, even as we swing into winter. True, we are best known, especially in images, for the summer when our bluffs and trails and river are a recreation paradise, and we’ve got Shakespeare and Beethoven and gorgeous parks and, and, and… But I’m telling you, this place is smoking hot in the winter too. That’s a figure of speech, by the way. It’s not hot at all – it’s cold – so don’t send me letters if you get here and it’s 26 degrees. But it is the warmest place in Minnesota, I’ve heard, so we’ve got that going for us. Anywhoo…
We’ve also got music – lots of it – like the Celtic Christmas Concert this Friday by the touring Jennifer Licko Band in our gorgeous Masonic Theater, the Messiah Sing In at Winona State, the Winona Hims Christmas Concert, and the Winona Brass Band Concert, and that’s just what’s on in the next three weeks. We’ve also got a historic downtown that doesn’t get more picturesque than at Christmas time. Street lamps are strung with garland and store fronts are decorated, and it is like being thrown back a century when you stroll down the street – except there’s cooler stuff to buy now. And we have trolly tours of Christmas lights and an Old Time Christmas Radio Show play and a sweet new group of exhibits at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, and of course the Frozen River Film Festival coming up in January. And all those bluff trails turn into a haven for cross country skiers and snowshoers and even a few crazy bicyclists who love a challenge.
Fact is, in those idyllic images that splashed across the nation, Winona looks like a beautiful, sleepy river hamlet. And we are, if that’s what you’re looking for. But I’d like to tell all those viewers that while they can certainly come here to get away from it all, they can come here to find it all too, because we can keep them as busy as they want to be. I think we should call it the Winona Factor – a set of qualities that set us apart from the rest and most definitely work to our advantage, whether you live here or just come to play.
Want to know what’s going on? Check out the Visit Winona Event Calendar and see for yourself how Winona is heating itself up on these cold winter days.