With local bars and restaurants struggling to recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, area Chambers of Commerce & Tourism are partnering with their neighbors to try and help.
In an attempt to build off its successful “Chamber Checks” program, the Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna area chambers of commerce & tourism have introduced gift checks that can be used in all three cities.
Faribault Chamber President Nort Johnson said that the idea for the program came out of conversations with Harry Brown’s Family Automotive General Manager Mike Brown, who approached the chamber in hopes of doing something to boost the local restaurant and bar industry which took a significant hit following mandated closures due to the pandemic.
“Many local bars and restaurants are hurting,” he said. “We hope to do what we can to kickstart their businesses.”
With no fees for the buyer or restaurant owner, the gift cards make for a fun, easy and flexible gift. Brown said that for people uncomfortable dining in, takeout and delivery options can provide a safe way to get local eats while supporting local businesses.
Buying local can have a surprisingly large ripple effect. Dollars spent at locally owned small businesses tend to be “recycled” within the local economy several times, as business owners and employees tend to live in the area and shop locally themselves.
Johnson said that the Chamber is receiving orders for the checks on a daily basis. Eventually, the three chambers plan to expand the program to retail businesses, but for now the Minne-Roadtrip checks are only be redeemable at participating bars and restaurants.
“We’re very happy to be able to provide this boost for our hospitality industry,” Johnson said. “We know times are tough and we know that (Minne-roadtrip checks) will inspire local spending.”
The initial response from local businesses was strong. Richie Eye Clinic and local insurance agent Bart Jackson have made significant purchases, and Harry Brown’s is pledging to match other gift card purchases with up to $20,000 in purchases for its own staff and customers.
The new program builds off the “Minne-roadtrip” partnership that launched in 2016 as a joint effort to promote tourism in the three cities. It’s designed to shift the perception for travelers throughout the region that a fun Minnesota vacation means going “up north.”
On its website is information about a variety of local shopping, events, dining and other amenities sure to suit the desires of nearly any traveler. Earlier this year, it was awarded a Destination Marketing Award by Explore Minnesota Tourism for its innovative approach. With its own website and social media pages, the Minne-roadtrip campaign encourages travelers to leave behind the “hustle and bustle” of the big city and instead visit the region’s historic attractions and family-owned small businesses.
While large companies have suffered a major economic blow from COVID and accompanying lockdowns, locally owned small businesses have undoubtedly been hit hardest. Even with state-imposed restrictions beginning to relax, the road to recovery will be long and rocky.
Still, Karen Pehrson, who serves as Director of Tourism & Conventions for the Owatonna Chamber, expressed surprising optimism. Pehrson said that as families begin to think about traveling again, they might be more comfortable with a weekend jaunt to southern Minnesota than a big trip.
The region’s hospitality and tourism industry is large and growing in importance. Bringing in $16 billion in revenue and employing 273,000 full or part time workers as of 2018, it’s one of the state’s largest industries.
Economic projections for the industry are now dire. A May survey from Hospitality Minnesota showed that more than 50% of Minnesota hospitality businesses expected to close permanently if business conditions didn’t improve in the next two months.
According to Explore Minnesota, Cabela’s in Owatonna is the top tourist attraction in southern Minnesota, a sizable region which includes some 36 counties. Meanwhile, Rice County is among the region’s top performers in gross income and employment. As of 2018, the industry employed more than 2,300 people in Rice County and brought in just under $148 million in revenue. Steele County’s tourism industry is smaller, but still brought in $74 million in revenue and employed 1,500 workers.