If every lodging facility fully participates, it’ll cost the City $18,500 in first year.

    After a “soft” launch earlier this year on various social media platforms that’s given the “Belong in Crookston” marketing initiative a mostly behind-the-scenes boost through thousands of clicks and likes, City officials are looking to more deliberately and officially stamp Belong in Crookston as the community’s “brand.”

    First up? Co-branding the initiative with the local lodging community. The Crookston City Council Ways & Means Committee this week unanimously approved a recommendation from City Administrator Shannon Stassen to team up with local hotels and motels so that when they advertise and otherwise promote themselves to their customers and potential customers, “Belong in Crookston” will be a part of their efforts to publicize themselves and their community.

    The committee recommendation to OK the program for one year and then revisit it at that time to see how well it worked will go to the full council for approval on May 22

    Stassen said he’s met with representative of each hotel and motel in Crookston, and all are on board with joining forces through co-branding.

    Participating lodging facilities will also be eligible for a financial reimbursement from the City, based on the number of rooms they have and the level of their participation. To be reimbursed for their advertising and marketing efforts that also showcase Belong in Crookston, lodging facilities will need to show the materials to the City along with their expense receipts for the advertising and marketing.

    Each hotel, Stassen explained, would be eligible for up to $100 per hotel room in reimbursable marketing expense that incorporates Belong in Crookston, whether it’s print and broadcast media advertising, social media promotion, or even something like a billboard. If all lodging facilities fully participate, the cost to the City each year would be $18,500, he said.

    The money will come from the council’s discretionary Community and Economic Development Fund. Each year, money is allocated to the fund, and this year, Finance Director Angel Weasner said $88,000 was placed in the fund.

    Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee expressed the most vocal reservations about the plan to partner with hotels and motels. His chief concern was that more pressing initiatives that the City should be focusing on might be at risk of getting pushed aside by focusing too much now on things like Belong in Crookston. “Pretty pictures and nice words are nice, but we need to be doing more than this,” Fee said. (Thursday’s Times will have more on what Fee’s talking about, and Mayor Wayne Melbye and the council’s reaction.)

    In making the case for the partnership, Stassen reiterated that the goal of Belong in Crookston isn’t to convince people to visit Crookston for a weekend or a tournament or other event and then leave. It’s to show people how great Crookston is through its quality of life amenities – safety, affordability, recreational opportunities, etc. – and convince them to move here and stay, to live, work, play and learn here as Crookston residents. Every person who stays at a Crookston lodging facility, Stassen said, is a potential Crookston resident and is very likely associated with a current Crookston resident.

    “Yes, on a certain level this is helping our hotels, but this is them helping us in a pretty big way, too,” he said. “There are a number of things we can check off as very sellable assets of our community, and we said all along that we want our businesses partnering with us and helping us reach a broader audience. This is just step one.”

    One future step will involve a community-wide contest – more details to come later – in which Crookston residents will be able to illustrate in a variety of fashions why and how they “Belong in Crookston.” Another likely future step will take the partnering with hotels strategy to the next level by co-branding with the larger Crookston business community. The specific example mentioned this week was that if Dee, Incorporated was advertising for new employees, those efforts would also include the Beyond in Crookston brand and the various ways potential Dee employees can learn more about not just what Dee has to offer as a potential employee, but what the Crookston community has to offer to a potential resident.

    Stassen said the soft launch has been successful, and, he noted, essentially free of charge, too. But it’s time, he added, to invest some money in the effort to reach the next level. “We have a message, and it all leads to belonging in Crookston,” he explained. “It’s a solid message that can bring people here and it’s created a lot of exciting buzz, but it’s only going to reach so far on its own. It needs another push to get a farther reach, and this is the start of that.

    “We’re putting a nice shine on our community, but you need to put something in front of people 10 times before they’re even going to remember it,” Stassen added.

    The mayor stressed that the council is essentially approving a one-year “pilot” project, and that if the positive impact a year from now is deemed in their eyes to be minimal, they’ll have the chance to change course.  “We’re not just helping (hotels) pay for advertising; there’s plenty in it for us, too,” Melbye said. “They can click on our links to help find a home and get more information they need.”

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said that, considering the “considerable headwind” the local lodging community is current facing – a headwind so significant that the City earlier this year launched a “sports tourism” initiative to boost overnight stays for local tournaments, events and other activities – investing a bit of City money in something that might help local hotels and motels certainly can’t hurt.

    “I think we’ve all heard publicly about the hospitality industry’s challenges here, and some of us have heard much more on that privately,” Hoiseth said. “I’m kind of indifferent to the specific methods, but anything we can do to help, especially this year, is a good thing. Whatever we get on the co-branding is a great bonus.”

    Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson echoed those sentiments.

    “This is worth the money if at the same time you help a hotel; this is an investment in the community, in my eyes,” he said. “Do we get 100 percent bang for our buck? I don’t know. But if we don’t get people to come here in the first place, they’re never going to spend their money anywhere else in the community, either.”

    Since he was hired as city administrator, Stassen said countless discussions have taken place about the need to better market Crookston. Belong in Crookston is the first major foray into that effort, and partnering and co-branding and, yes, investing City money is the next logical step. “These things don’t do any good just sitting in my computer or someone else’s computer, it has to be put out there for people to see and react to,” Stassen said.