3 min read October 2022 — In an interview with Invest:, Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Saint Paul talked about the devastating impact of the pandemic on travel, the digitization of the industry and its importance to diversity efforts. On Visit Saint Paul and the RiverCentre itself, he said, “We drive the tourism economy, which is the economic engine for this area. In Ramsey County alone, it is a $2.3 billion annual industry.”
What are some key highlights or milestones from the last 12 months?
The most important thing was bringing business back. The pandemic affected everyone but our business has markedly improved since March. We’ve shifted into a higher gear and activity is approaching what it was like in 2019. We have been very busy and our team is growing even closer. We had a huge reduction in our workforce, with budgets getting slashed in half. There were so many false starts and restarts, and scheduling became very difficult, but we learned a lot through this time. The tourism sector was the first and hardest hit but also the last to recover. Prior to the pandemic, we held events with 20,000 people, which is tough to do via Zoom. We had to become more efficient and learned a lot about safety. We did more learning in the last two years than ever before. It was a very difficult time, and no one has ever run this organization through a worldwide pandemic before. Personally, I am proud of that. It is nothing short of amazing that we are still here.
What is the economic impact of Visit Saint Paul on the region and what is its role in the recovery of the business climate?
We drive the tourism economy, which is the economic engine for this area. In Ramsey County, it is a $2.3 billion annual industry. We impact approximately 30,000 jobs indirectly, so we are an important driver in the community. During the pandemic, we lost $1 billion in sales, and had about 20,000 jobs lost, along with losing $70 million in tax revenue, so that was devastating. We are still missing a lot of revenue because business travel is down but we expect to mostly recover overall in 2023, although some things may not recover until 2025-2026. We can make St. Paul a better place to live by helping our region to recover from this and that is why we are doing what we do. We are in the travel and tourism business but we do what we do for the people who live here.
How has tourism evolved in St. Paul and what do you predict moving forward?
We need to get back to a place where we can invest more resources into sales and marketing. We also want to keep our efforts on diversity and inclusion top of mind. We will continue delivering best practices, which represent our community. Our city is very diverse and we will continue communicating that in very conscientious and compassionate ways that represent all cultures. St. Paul is a city of neighborhoods. Our digital and various other efforts reflect this, with a new website and a brand refresh that recognizes this diversity. Our clientele and the marketplace have changed and we reflect this newness.
It is like resetting and starting over, where digitization is a key element. It is a different landscape but we think the shift is amazing. Things are looking positive. There is pent-up demand and nothing attracts a crowd more than having crowds. We had the best March in the history of St. Paul tourism this year, so it is possible to recover and move forward.
What have been some of the major challenges this year?
There are many challenges with workforce and inflation and there is still a tightening of pocketbooks. Workforce issues are the biggest thing. We have challenges attracting and retaining talent and we have short- and long-term factors to address there. This is a great industry that goes beyond a bunch of bed-making jobs. These positions turn into management and ownership positions and we need to get back to a place where that is recognized. There are tremendous opportunities here and we have a need to bring people back into hospitality because we are understaffed. Our brand at RiverCentre is focused on hospitality and service. Today, we have fewer people and they are working harder than ever to develop that same level of service on a day-to-day basis. We need more hands and more help.
What are your top priorities for the next two to three years?
St. Paul is beautiful and we want to center our marketing on the attraction and romance of the Mississippi River. This is our future, so we have projects on the horizon like the River Balcony, a learning center and the Convention Center Hotel, as well as modern streetcars from the airport. These will develop the destination and make it interconnected. These projects will take us to the next level nationally and internationally. It is something I am very passionate about. Duluth did something similar with their Lakewalk and Lake Superior, so we want to do that because we believe we are sitting on a gold mine. St. Paul is very historic and it is not a cookie-cutter city. It has a European, medieval feel, with cobblestone streets and the cathedral. We have a very cool and storied past and it is time to leverage that into the future with St. Paul 2.0.
We also might get Expo 2027, which is also known as the World Fair. We are a finalist and if we get it, there will be a million people a week in attendance. It is like getting the Super Bowl for 90-plus days. It is something we are working very hard on collaboratively. We are in a good position and there couldn’t be a better place in the world to do this.
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