Prairie Pulse: Sara Otte Coleman and Poetry Out Loud
(soft music) - Hello and welcome to Prairie Pulse. Coming up a little bit later in the show, we'll meet the 2023 North Dakota Poetry Out Loud Champion. But first, our guest joining me now is Sarah Otte Coleman, the North Dakota Tourism Director. Sarah, thanks for joining us today. - I'm glad to be here.
- Well, as we get started, and we always do, tell the folks a little bit about yourself and your background. - Yeah, I'm a North Dakota girl, born and raised in North Dakota. We also farm and ranch north of Bismarck.
So I've been at the, at the state tourism division for 20 years now. Celebrated my 20th anniversary in January. So it's been just a really fun and interesting job just to see how our offerings have evolved and how much marketing has changed.
And so I feel really, really fortunate to be able to be kind of the marketing arm for the state of North Dakota. - Well, and you and I have celebrated 20 years together here It looks like I've been 20 years at Prairie Public. But let's talk about spring and summer tourism in North Dakota. What's the outlook? - We're very optimistic.
Right now we're seeing really solid numbers in terms of interest and people coming in. Of course, our advertising campaign is just kind of hit rolling now and we think that the economy's tricky, right? Inflation's tough and, but Americans are prioritizing travel and they're prioritizing safety and good value and we think that we're positioned really well for that. So we're excited to get the summer travel season off. - Yeah, this winter sort of a long winter for a lot of folks. Do you think that will contribute to more visitors sort of getting outside and wanting to do things and seeing the many sites in North Dakota? - I do think so, especially within the region, 'cause nit was a tough winter for a lot of us throughout the region. I also know that the Canadians are super excited to get back and they're gonna eliminate some of the barriers at the border here in the next few weeks.
So we're excited to also see some of that pent up demand from the Canadians who haven't been coming down since the pandemic. - So what do the hotel bookings look like? I guess the advanced hotel bookings. - We don't have a whole lot of foresight into that. You can look at some of 'em and they're looking fairly good, but people don't book very far out anymore, so it's hard to project. But what we are seeing is that the occupancy rates are very strong.
Back in October we surpassed kind of the high, high level or high mark, which was back in 2019 and we've been surpassing that ever since. Right now our occupancy rate is at an all time, well, an eight year high I should say. So we're optimistic. - Can you talk a bit about, COVID and not that we want to go back to COVID, but talk a bit about how that impacted tourism and whether or not things have kind of gotten back to normal or not.
- Yeah, I think, I think there's always gonna be that pre COVID, post COVID comparison. We still compare all of our metrics back to 19 and kind of, using the last few years as just regrowth years. But it's impacted a lot of the way people do business, the way people think. I don't think we're ever gonna be back completely to normal, but I feel like our offerings, a lot of our offerings we didn't have to close down for very long. We were able to keep that continuity.
Most of the attractions and events are all back up to full speed and are even looking at expansions and adding additional enhancements to attract new visitors. So we're in a good place. - Now this one.
Talk about your tourism business development focus. It targets needs and gaps in your current offerings, I think. - Yeah, when you think about North Dakota, what a lot of people think of are our outdoor recreation, they think about a agritourism and those are some of the areas that we probably have the least offerings in. So we're really working hard to try and develop a tourism business development plan where we're not only selling and marketing what we have, but we're also trying to build, build that supply, build those offerings. And so what we're focusing in, in some gap areas, we're focusing in some specific areas that have a lot of potential for growth, just with some additional buildouts. And so we're excited to have this new position.
We've got some new tools to be able to incentivize tourism business development as well. And so that will continue to be a focus here going forward in the next year or two. - Well, when you say areas of growth, what areas are you targeting? What are they? - Well, like I mentioned, there's the niche areas. You think about outdoor recreation and in a lot of cases we're kind of a do-it-yourself destination. You bring your camper, you bring all of your toys, all of your equipment, you bring your own horses, 'cause we don't have a lot of places where you can do trail rides.
So those are the kind of offerings that we're trying to augment and incentivize and try and encourage further growth of. And then there's also those regional areas that just have tremendous potential, the rendezvous region up in the Pembina Gorge area, the Turtle Mountain region where they've got four seasons, activities, outdoor recreation, scenic byways, a lot of the components to really build out really vibrant tourism economies. - Well can you talk a little bit about post pandemic rural tourism interest and how you promote things like birding, isn't it? - Yeah, in fact we actually just had an email that went out to our, to a specific birding audience focused on birding. That's a great spring activity and with more wildlife refuges than any other state, it's a great niche for us that, it also really helps, like you said, drive people to those rural areas. Some of our national wildlife refuges have really great infrastructure, and by that I mean boardwalk and overlooks and visitor centers where people can really get a feel for where to see the birds and what kind of species they can see there.
And then there's even drives that are, that are more formal on paths that people can take. Communities like Steel and Carrington and Lisbon and Garrison have really kind of built kind of those packages around that burning niche. - What about your campaign now? "Hello North Dakota," a new campaign? Can you tell us about it? - Yeah, so the "Be Legendary" continues to be our brand and we just kind of continue to evolve that and kind of create new creative that just encourages people to explore, take that next step to do some research on what they might be able to do and see here in North Dakota. So "Hello North Dakota" is kind of, hello, we're super welcoming.
People comment about that all the time that they've never been any place that's friendlier. And so we're building on that kind of hospitality, that friendliness that is so intrinsic in all of our communities and all of our attractions. But it also has kind of another, another meaning in that "Hello North Dakota," people don't know anything about us.
We did some national perception research last year that showed 22%, it was only 22% of Americans that really knew much about North Dakota. So it's like, "Hello," you should learn about what we have to offer here and we're more than you think and you're gonna be unexpectedly surprised when you come. - And of course you're "Be Legendary." You mentioned it, it still resonates well for you and working well? - It does, yeah, it does. We still have that thread that kind of has run through the campaigns over 20 years. Again, really trying to encourage people to actively be legendary, come to North Dakota and do something unique.
- Well as we know, the legislative session ended just not too long ago. How did your department fare during the session? - We did okay. We were able to get some, to replace some of the dollars that we had last 'biennium for the marketing campaigns.
So we feel like we'll be in a decent position to market the state. We also were given some dollars to do some grants for business tourism, business development, like we talked about a little bit earlier. So we have a grant program that we'll be rolling out this summer to do matches for tourism, businesses that wanna kind of fit those niches. And then we also have, because we're the kind of experts in marketing the state, we also market the state for not just a visitor but also workforce and talent and new residents.
And so we were entrusted with some additional dollars to build off the "Find a Good Life" in North Dakota campaign, which will work with our workforce division to really kind of create this pipeline and this marketing program. We know people visit the state, you're much more likely to move. 76% of our new residents visited first and then moved. And so we know there's a lot of synergy between those two campaigns and those two work areas and so we're excited to continue that work.
- How many employees do you have in tourism? - Right now we have 13 in the tourism division, which is pretty lean and mean considering that we also do the marketing for all the other divisions within the Department of Commerce and then we manage the state brand for other state agencies as well. - Yeah, workers for this, finding workers for businesses is hard, but what about staffing like at state parks and forts and things like that? Is that a challenge for your department and for those organizations. - It's a big challenge, especially the seasonal positions. More and more you're hiring some seasonals and they maybe aren't staying the whole season, so then you have to regroup halfway through the summer. So historical society and state parks and even national parks really struggle to fill those positions.
So we're hopeful that, that all of them will get filled. They're fun jobs. Hopefully people will see the opportunity in them and that we'll be able to fully staff all of the operations coming into the summer. - But technically those employees are not your employees. - Correct, yep, yep. They work for other divisions within state government or federal government.
- What are some of the top tourist destinations in the state and which ones do you think will be top this summer? - The top traction is normally always the national park, although with the weather this past winter, they're tracking a little below where they were last year. State parks are also really popular, sites like the Heritage Center and our venues, which have big events that attract people from all over are major attractions. What I'm really excited about are some of the new offerings that are coming online this summer.
So just last weekend, the Discovery Center, Magic City Discovery Center, a new children's museum in Minot opened, the Gateway to Science Center, which is in a beautiful building overlooking the Missouri River in Bismarck has seen great, great numbers already here in the first few months of operation. If you look just down the hill from there, you'll see the heritage landing, which is where the Lewis and Clark riverboat leaves and it also has a beautiful deck and restaurant and coffee shop located there. So that's brand new, of course the Brewhalla here in at Drekker and Fargo. I think the hotel is pretty close to being opened. It wasn't open a few weeks ago when I was there, but that's an exciting new addition. And then the conservatory, which is up at the International Peace Gardens, I'm heading there this afternoon, that will also be opening, that new big expansion up there.
So I think we're excited about the new attractions. I think they're gonna do really well this summer. - Well good. Can you quantify out-of-state visitors versus in-state visitors? - Yeah, technology has really helped with that. When you look at all the data sources that we have now, most cars, I think 90% of new cars all have GPS in 'em. We all carry around our cell phones or our tablets or gaming units.
None of us use cash anymore. Everybody uses their, so there's a lot of data out there that we can use to try and determine who our visitor is, where they're coming from. What we're seeing is that about half of our visitation is North Dakotan's choosing to travel and spend their dollars here in North Dakota, which is super good, right? And then the other half is non-residents. So that's about 11 million non-resident visitors and they're primarily coming from our target markets where we are marketing within the region. So you're looking at, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Illinois. We also did some new marketing campaigns in Colorado and Texas this past year.
So those numbers are starting to show and then, of course, the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. - I know I ask you this probably every year, but what are some of your favorite hidden gems in the state? - Well, my new favorite is Cows & Co in Carrington. So a beautiful, beautiful farm in Carrington, a large dairy operation who has taken the farm to table to really the perfect level. They not only make gelato that they used to just deliver, but they now make Gouda cheese, which they learn to make, back in the old country and have a beautiful facility on this farm in Carrington. So that's just a new favorite. We actually went out and did a photo shoot after I was there a couple years ago.
We did a photo shoot there this past year. So they're in some of our advertisements and then another area, I think the west part of Lake Sakakawea A lot of people don't get all the way west to like McKinsey Bay and that area. It's just beautiful with the islands and the topography that you have out there, it's really, really fun and beautiful.
- Well we're gonna try to get you to go through some of these things here. Let's talk maybe can you walk us across the state with some of the various forts that people can visit and what they'd see if they go there? - Yeah, our website has a great itinerary for forts if you're into that history. But let's start in the east. So Fort Ransom, Fort Abercrombie are all out here in the eastern part of North Dakota. Then Fort Toton in the Devil's Lake area.
And then as you get to the central area, you've got Fort Stevenson, which is on Lake Sakakawea. Fort Mandan, of course, Lewis and Clark fame on the Missouri River and Fort Abraham Lincoln. And then as you go out west you've got Fort Buford and then Fort Union of course, which is a federal site. So great history at all of those.
Good activities, too kids, can run up in some of those block houses and explore. So those are really fun things to do in the summer. - Are all of them staffed so that they, you can get answers and have tours of any or get information? - Yes, all of those sites are staffed. Some of them are state historic sites, some of them are state parks, some of 'em are federal entities, but they all do have operational hours and visitor centers and while they might not have a narrated tour, you get pointed in the right direction and you can do a self-guided tour. - Yeah, okay, what about some of the events? What are some maybe big events you have going on throughout the summer? - So we have, right now we have over 200 events on our website, which this time of year is growing every day because there's a portal where you can, where where people can enter their own event onto the website.
So it's always hard to hone in. But you've got, of course you've got all the great festivals that happen, the small town festivals. I think Walhalla's celebrating 175 years this year. So that will be a lot of fun. Some of the big events, for example, Mandan Rodeo Days, which I think it's our hundred 44th year this year.
They're one of the oldest longest running rodeos in the country. They have a brand new arena. So that will be a really unique and fun to go out there and see how they've enhanced that.
And then you look at the fairs, Red River Valley Fair and the State Fair and all of those are mean summer, right? - Absolutely. You mentioned Sakakawea, but can you talk a little bit about more of the recreation and water attractions in the state? - Yeah, so Lake Sakakawea has some great offerings both on the North shore and the South shore, east to west obviously. It covers a lot of geography, so there's number of ways that you can get on the water too, more than we've ever had before where you can rent paddle boards and kayaks or you can go out on the cruise out of, at the Bismarck-Mandan Visitor Center is kind of connected to the yacht that they have there up near Newtown. Lots of great recreation there. Devil's Lake, of course, has expanded.
They've got great resorts on that lake and more places than ever again where you can rent boats and watercraft and paddle boards and whatnot to get on the water in Devil's Lake as well. And then Lake Metigoshe, is of course the other one that's just beautiful northern lake, more wooded than the others there as well. There's great amenities on the lake and plenty of things to do to get you out there on the water.
And in the Missouri River, I think people sometimes forget about the Missouri River in Bismarck, but there's, number of restaurants and places you can rent. Again, ways that you can get out and enjoy. Or if you don't wanna be on the water and you just want to rent a bike or bring your bikes with, then you can bike, bike along the trails and go to different restaurants and places along the river in Bismarck and Mandan as well. - Well, there's a lot to do it sounds like.
But in your travels, maybe to conferences or with your colleagues across the United States, what have you learned about tourism in other parts of the country and how they're doing? - I think everybody's doing pretty well. Our region was probably the first region to really recover from the pandemic and now you're kind of seeing that wave go out to the other more metro areas, especially along the coasts. So I think everybody's pretty optimistic. Of course, the concerns are our economy and I think places that are more dependent on air travel, people are concerned. Air travel's a hassle right now.
There's some barriers there and so, I think that's gonna fare well for those of us that really focus and not that we don't have a lot of people fly to North Dakota too, but the bulk of our visitation is drive traffic and so I think it is gonna favor the drive destinations a little bit again this year. - True. What's the best part of your job? - Well the best part is probably getting to go do things and see things which I don't get to do as often as I'd like to. I think a lot of people think that I get to do that every week, but I don't. Heading up to the Peace Gardens this afternoon for a conference up there tomorrow.
And so I really just love to get out and see the areas and see how passionate people are about sharing their stories and sharing their state and business with our visitors. - Yeah. - Well we are about out of time, so if people want more information, where's the best place for them to go? - They should go to ndtourism.com. Tons of information, itineraries, you can search anywhere you want. - Thanks so much for joining us today.
- Great to be here. - Stay tuned for more. (soft music) "Poetry Out Loud" is a high school program that encourages students to learn about poetry while they master public speaking skills and build self-confidence. Gabrielle Johnson from Minot High School was the 2023 North Dakota State Poetry Out Loud champion. - Shall I tell you then that we exist.
There came a light blue and white careening the police like wailing angels to bitter me. Competitive speech is a thing that I do. There's different events that you can do and one of them is poetry interpretation.
I just find that poetry is my event. Poetry is a good outlet and sometimes poetry doesn't make sense, but when you think about it more, it makes you understand it better. "Poetry Out Loud" is poetry out loud in the competition. It starts off a school-wide competition and then you go to state and then if you win you get to go to nationals. Poems are selected from the Poetry Out Loud website.
You select three poems, you have two that you recite and then if you make it to the top five, you then can recite your third poem. One of them has to be less than 25 lines and the other has to be pre 20th century. You're being judged on accuracy, the appropriateness of dramatization, as well as your body language. When I do poetry, it's more dramatic. So I kind of had to unlearn what I learned to do for competitive speech poetry and really get to like the core of Poetry Out Loud, which is really being the poem.
The country I come from is called the Midwest, Bob Dylan. I want to be doused in cheese and fried. I want to wander the aisles. My heart's supermarket stops high as cholesterol.
I like poems that are literal and just kind of like straightforward. Most of the poems on that website are poetic and metaphorical. With preparing and practicing, it really taught me to like really read. It's really like trying to find what the author meant, but also trying to find a space and a way to bring my voice into it.
- The North Dakota Poetry Out Loud 2023 State Champion, Gabrielle Johnson. (people clapping) - I'm still processing that 'cause I was really like, I did it. What? Like that's crazy. Poetry's a great way to get people to think and think about what you want to say and a message you want to bring to other people. I feel like that's great and that's what I wanna do and that's what I did and I'm gonna keep doing that.
Let me sing the songs for the people. Songs for the old and young, songs to stir like a battle cry wherever they are sung. Not for the clashing of sabers, for carnage nor for strife, but songs to thrill the hearts of men. Poetry can be cool, it can be fun.
It's in art form. It's how people express themselves and how you can inspire and touch other people. I've never seen Poetry out Loud, didn't really know much about it. And I came last year and I watched, it inspired me. There aren't a lot of opportunities for people to just say poetry.
And so coming here, being around other people who wanna listen to poetry, it creates like a nice environment to really like listen to it. It reaches other people, it makes them think it's just cool vibes. And poetry Out Loud is able to do that with what they do. Black Matters is by Keith S. Wilson, after DH Lawrence. When I first read it, I was like, is it just talking about black holes or something? Like what's going on? But then looking back and analyzing it, I'm like, okay, this is really metaphorical. I like the first line.
"Shall i tell you then that we exist?" And that one really spoke to me because we exist. Now, your average Midwesterner, different cultures, different races, different backgrounds, we exist and the struggles that come with that. So I really wanted to bring that to life and talk about those things. Black matters by Keith S. Wilson, after D.H. Lawrence. Shall I tell you then that we exist. There came a light blue and white careening .
The police like wailing angels to bitter me. And so this, dark matter is hypothetical. Know that it cannot be seen in the gunpowder of a flower, in a worm that raisins on the concretes and a man that wills himself not to speak. Gags. Oh, gags for a shadow, cannot breathe.
It deprives them of nothing. Pride is born in the black and then dies in it. I hear our shadow, low trouble, the clasping of our hands. Dark matter is invisible. We infer it, how light bends around a black body.
And still you do not see black halos even here, my having told you plainly where they are. (soft music) - Well, that's all we have on Prairie Pulse this week. And as always, thanks for watching.
(soft music) - Funded by the North Dakota Council on the Arts and by the members of Prairie Public.