When Mike Murwin comes to town, he does what he does best - wanders.
The veteran promotions manager for the Iowa Division of Tourism, with the look of the "Father Mulcahy" character from "M.A.S.H." disguising one of the state's most cunning minds for travel marketing and economics, likes the man on the street approach.
"The first thing I did when I came into Storm Lake is go downtown to walk around for an hour. You learn a lot about a community that way."
The gregarious travel guru liked what he found. "People are really the most important asset we have as a community and as a state, and it's the one thing we usually forget to market," he said. "I found that when I walk into a little shop in Storm Lake, I'm not by myself for long - someone will come up and greet me, and ask me what brings me to town, and how I'm doing. Storm Lake is extremely friendly and helpful. That matters to people."
Murwin was exploring Storm Lake as part of a day of work with the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses on learning to promote the city as a tourism destination.
One of his tasks was to provide a "FISH Philosophy" workshop for the community Tuesday - and when Murwin speaks of FISH, he isn't talking about the big walleye drawing visitors to the lakeshore.
His FISH workshop is based in part on a famous fish market in Seattle, and the book "The Fish Philosophy," he said. "This famous marketplace is a cold, wet place to work, and yet the fishermen have this incredible sense for taking care of the needs of the people who come there. It's the attitude and the sense of connecting with people that bring people back there, and that is what we are looking for in Iowa as well."
Attitude will play an equal role to attractions in promoting tourism for Buena Vista County, Murwin predicts.
"Storm Lake obviously has a lot of pride. In so many towns, you come in and see a lot of junk and rundown areas, and I don't see that here. I suppose a town doesn't think of it as selling itself when it has the pride to keep itself clean and pretty, but that is exactly what that town is doing. The attitude a town has about itself plays a big role in getting people to visit, to come back, and in some cases, to consider moving there," Murwin said.
"If economic development has taught us anything, it is that quality of life is bigger than attractions and economics. Who wants to go somewhere that you need two deadbolt locks on the door and you can't allow your daughter to walk to the movies?"
For the summer of 2002, the tourism outlook in Iowa and Storm Lake is bright, he feels.
"I think there is a lot of worry about the aftermath of September 11 on community tourism, but in the midwest in general and Iowa in particular, I anticipate a season that is even better than what we've been having," Murwin said. "People are choosing to stay closer to home, to visit family and friends, and that is what Iowa travel is all about."
A survey taken at Thanksgiving time at Iowa's roadside welcome centers showed that tourism travel in the state after the September tragedies had already rebounded to show a 4 percent increase from the same time the previous year.
Studies show that 87 percent of all travel in Iowa is done by car or recreation vehicle, as opposed to the heavy air travel that other states depend on. That doesn't mean that travel is any less significant to Iowa's economy, however.
"In Buena Vista County, over $15 million was spent in 2000 on tourism-related activities, and over 190 jobs are directly related to travel and tourism. Over $160,000 is produced in local tax revenue from tourism in a year. Tourism really is a part of economic development for Storm Lake, and there is an opportunity to grow it," Murwin said.
Storm Lake's strategy for increasing tourism should be simple, he added - promote what it knows best, and target people within a reasonable area.
"The lake is the obvious first thing - it offers a whole different feel and appeal to travelers than a place like Okoboji would, and you should capitalize on that. Buena Vista University is a tremendous asset that the community should market - there isn't much better than taking in a college football game on a hometown campus on a crisp fall day, and where else can a person do it with a gorgeous lake stretching out right behind the end zone?"
Historical and cultural attractions are ranking ever-higher on the appeal list for travelers these days, and Storm Lake has several attractions that should be more widely appreciated in this category. "One people might not think of is the Tree Museum - I've never seen anything quite like it. It should really be an attraction to this community," Murwin said.
Storm Lake should also consider a Main Street preservation program to take advantage of the many historical buildings remaining in the downtown, he prodded. "The entire downtown could be quite a historical attraction. People aren't looking for the big city mall shopping experience any more, they want a slower pace and the chance to hunt for unique shops in a community atmosphere."
Bed and Breakfast Inns are also enjoying a second boom era in popularity, and with quality sites in Storm Lake, Alta, Sioux Rapids and southern Clay County, the communities would be well-served to promote the chance for a string of B&B experiences to visitors, he said.
"For people who like bed and breakfasts - and I happen to love them - there's nothing like being able to meet new people around the breakfast table before you go out to explore. It's a very personal way to travel, and that's why the B&B industry is really springing up again."
Storm Lake should also heavily market its celebrations like the Star Spangled Spectacular and its Miracle on Lake Avenue at Christmas, he said. "I see towns wanting to advertise in Better Homes & Gardens when they should be telling their story in the local newspapers. Market in your own town first, and out to 100-150 miles. That's the area where your visitors will be coming to you from. Storm Lake should also keep working to bring in those motor coach tours. One bus coming into town can mean thousands of dollars in tourism revenue."
Likewise, the state's $1.2 million tourism promotion budget will be more closely targeted this year than ever. "We will be hitting the region our visitors come from - Chicago to Kansas City to Omaha to Milwaukee. But we will put a significant effort into advertising Iowa within Iowa. There are a world of things to do that are only a tank of gas away for Iowans - the river country, the Loess Hills, there is so much to see that is different and interesting. I've been involved in Iowa tourism for 15 years, and still my wife and I take probably four trips every year and find something we've never seen or done before without leaving Iowa to do it."
Statewide, the Division of Tourism will go beyond marketing attractions this season, and will begin to market Iowa's people.
"Iowa's strongest attribute has always been the people. Midwest Living Magazine ranked Iowa's people number one in hospitality, and a survey done in Illinois showed that Illinois people ranked Iowans on top for being the most friendly, even ahead of their own state, Murwin said.
He likes to tell a story from his own childhood to illustrate the story for the businesspeople he encounters as he criss-crosses the state:
"When I was a little boy, one year at Christmas my father bought a little toy gas station, and on the night before Christmas he went to put it together to put it under the tree when he discovered that instead, the box contained the pieces for a dollhouse. So he called the owner of the store in our Iowa hometown, and explained that there was going to be a sad boy that Christmas.
"It was 10 at night on Christmas Eve, but the owner of that store told my father to get in his car, and he'd be there to meet him by the time he could get to the store, so that the gift could be made right. I don't think you could call up the owner of Wal-Mart or K-Mart or Target corporation and get that. That's why I think it's so important to a town's future that the people in those hometown stores are friendly."