Duane Schlosser discovered Spokane, Washington, by accident. And he’s glad he did.
Schlosser, a retired delivery driver from Loretto, Minnesota, booked a Columbia River cruise for this fall. When it fell through because of the surging COVID-19 delta variant cases, he didn’t know what to do with his nonrefundable airline tickets from Minneapolis to Spokane.
“So my wife and I thought, ‘Why not take a vacation in Spokane?'” he says.
At a time when COVID-19 worries continue to upend travel plans, there are more people like Schlosser who are visiting destinations that you won’t find on any top 10 lists. OK, calling them destinations may be a stretch. There are no theme parks, no UNESCO World Heritage sites. They’re small cities with big tourism ambitions. But vacationing in one could save you money and headaches too.
Schlosser says he traveled to Spokane, in the eastern part of Washington, out of curiosity. And he found plenty to do over three days, including taking long walks in Manito Park‘s lilac garden, touring the Bing Crosby House Museum at Gonzaga University, and checking out biplanes at the Historic Flight Museum.
“I liked it,” he says. “The people are friendly, and it’s a nice town.”
That’s music to the ears of people like Kate Hudson, who handles marketing for Visit Spokane, the area’s destination marketing organization. She says bringing visitors to Eastern Washington is already challenging, but COVID-19 made it even more difficult. The area’s tourism industry took a big hit and still hasn’t recovered.
“We’ve been trying to make it easier for people to discover us during the pandemic,” she says. “But it can be a challenge to get the attention of visitors.”
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Thomas Mustac visited Duluth, Minnesota, earlier this year. He was in the area for a wedding and decided to make a weekend of it. His schedule included crossing the famous lift bridge, touring Glensheen Mansion, walking up the Enger Tower and taking the scenic Duluth Lakewalk.
“Lake Superior has fantastic views, and there’s lots of history surrounding it,” says Mustac, who works for a communications firm in Orlando, Florida.
At the start of the pandemic, Duluth ramped up a campaign called “Be Here” to bring more visitors to the area. It emphasized outdoor attractions such as its state parks, access to Lake Superior and an abundance of cultural activities.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, this message resonated with visitors because we were highlighting Duluth’s incredible outdoor scene that naturally lends itself to social distancing,” says Sue Mageau, a spokeswoman for Visit Duluth. “Visitors knew they could travel safely.”
The plan worked. Hotel occupancy rates often exceeded 2019’s record levels in Duluth last summer.
Tourism officials in Brattleboro launched a new campaign called #LoveBrattleboroVT during the pandemic. The initiative promotes arts and cultural events to bring visitors to the destination. For example, this summer it promoted special events like Retreat Farm’s Food Truck Round-Up and the town’s signature Gallery Walk on the first Friday of every month. Attractions such as the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center also launched programs to draw visitors from out of town.
And they have. Peter Logue, a retired medical technology executive from South Boston, came to Brattleboro to experience its vibrant downtown. During his visit last summer, one of his favorite places to explore was the Brattleboro Farmers Market.
“There’s a stand there with a fellow, originally from California, who makes the best taco I’ve eaten in my life,” he says.
He also spent afternoons browsing the smaller shops in town. “I really enjoyed talking to the sage local owner of Brattleboro Books,” he adds. “It’s a great collection, superbly curated.”
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So should you skip a Top 10 destination and detour to one of these lesser-known places? It depends.
If you like quiet, out-of-the-way and understated experiences, a small city may be perfect for you. Although, to be fair, Brattleboro has a gnarly 90-meter ski jump if you like your vacation with a little extra adrenaline. And an early morning helicopter ride with Lake Superior Helicopters in Duluth is as exciting as any theme park ride. But on balance, these places are understated, not flashy.
They’re also worth a try if you want to go somewhere the other tourists don’t go – maybe for social distancing, maybe for novelty’s sake. And there is the cost too. A trip to one of these destinations can cost hundreds of dollars less than visiting an A-list attraction.
One thing is certain: If you’re looking for your next place to vacation, you shouldn’t overlook these lesser-known gems.
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Follow the hashtag. Small cities with lots to offer have started campaigns to promote themselves to outsiders at a grassroots level. For example, Visit Richmond this summer encouraged residents to share their favorite regional experiences on social media using the #MyRVAMoment hashtag. It turns out residents think there’s a lot to do in Virginia’s capital too.
Listen for the buzz. One of the buzziest destinations has been Iowa, which has ramped up its promotions in the last year. Iowa has a high concentration of cities that qualify as small-city destinations, including Davenport, Decorah, Iowa City, and Mason City. What’s in Iowa? If you’re aiming for next summer, don’t miss the famous Field of Dreams game and the Iowa State Fair. Or you can get out of town and go hiking at the famous Whiterock Conservancy.
Think differently. A destination that zigs when everyone else zags is a worthy small city for your next vacation. For example, earlier this year, historic Alexandria, Virginia, embraced its status as a smaller, less-crowded destination in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Its “Think Small” campaign offered visitors a different experience from the district at a slower pace – and maybe a lower price.
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