Truth be told, there was a time young Anna Bjerke didn’t have a stellar impression of Mankato. Growing up in nearby Fulda, she would often pass through the area on her way to other destinations.
“The funny sidebar with this whole deal is growing up in southwestern Minnesota, we were always traveling to the Twin Cities for entertainment and to see family. Going on all of those trips, we would travel through Mankato, and I was never impressed with what I saw. During that time, Highway 169 was under construction, which doesn’t make for a great view. That whole corridor was just not that attractive nor did it give any indication of what the community was really like. And not being the one behind the wheel, I couldn’t explore any deeper. So it’s funny that I grew up not really having a great opinion of the community and now I’m selling the community, which I now love.”
Nowadays, truth be told, Anna understands and appreciates all the Greater Mankato area has to offer, a passion she channels daily in her role as president of Visit Mankato. After traversing from her hometown of Fulda to South Dakota and then on to St. Cloud, she is thankful the journey led her to this destination.
“Graduate school brought me here and that’s when I truly understood all that it has to offer,” she says. Other things changed, too–her last name, for instance. She married her high school sweetheart, started raising her family here, and started making others aware of just what a special destination Mankato is, whether just coming for a visit or for a lifetime stay.
A lot has happened in her more than decadelong run in that role: a brand change, a growing marathon weekend, and the development of a sports commission, among others. As a result, thousands of people visit Mankato each year, eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels and shopping in our stores. In summary, adding to our quality of life. And it is all orchestrated by Anna Thill.
In this interview, we learn more about the work Thill oversees and how it is so impactful to businesses in our region.
Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up in the area?
I grew up in Fulda, Minnesota. There was a lot of moving around early in my childhood, but by second grade Fulda was home. My father worked at the Worthington Community College, where he taught macro and microeconomics, philosophy and religion. That was a very interesting combination of classes that made for an incredible amount of learning from my dad. My mother was mostly a stay-at-home mom raising all of us kids. I grew up with five brothers, but also have two older brothers from my dad’s first marriage.
With seven brothers and no sisters, I grew up a little bit as a tomboy, knowing how to shoot a gun, kick a football and throw a good spiral. I was always keeping up with my brothers and their friends. Unfortunately, as my brothers love to point out, I did not grow up learning from my mom how to bake or cook amazing meals. I was ready to do chores like my brothers, but if they weren’t in the kitchen helping to prepare a meal, then neither was I. Equality has always been a big deal to me, I guess.
With my dad being the breadwinner in the family and with all of us kids, we didn’t grow up having a lot. So I think a big part of my character also comes from growing up, especially in the early years, wearing hand-me-downs, only getting the essentials when we were shopping, or just seeing all of my friends have “more or better.” Don’t get me wrong, we had a great life growing up, but I do know what it’s like to live very modestly. So a modest childhood, being sensitive to equality issues and wanting to live a life my parents and God would be proud of, shaped me as a child.
Progressing forward I met my husband, T.J., when we were 16. He grew up in Worthington and I in Fulda, 16 miles apart. We are high school sweethearts about to celebrate 20 years of marriage in June. I guess you could say we kind of shaped each other too, since we have been together since we were kids.
We decided we were going to go to Sioux Falls for college. I loved music, both playing the flute and singing, so I went to Augustana College to major in music while T.J. went to the technical college for land surveying. He finished his two-year degree and wanted to go to St. Cloud State University to get a bachelor’s degree for land surveying. By that time, I knew I didn’t want to teach music, and I knew I didn’t want to compete for first chair in a symphony either. I knew it was a passion of mine, but it was not what my career was going to be. So I decided I would go with him to St. Cloud. I literally picked up the program guide that outlined all the different majors to see what I could go into. I knew I was resetting my future. As I read through all the options I landed on local and urban affairs, which is like city planning, community development, downtown revitalization, environmental protection, and more all wrapped up in one degree. That really spoke to me. There are a lot of different areas you could go into. I had never really studied any of those topics before, but going back to my childhood desire to create big change, these spoke to me.
So, we graduated together from St. Cloud State. He graduated from the very first class of land surveyors out of St. Cloud State University.
How did you end up in Mankato?
While I was going through my classes at St. Cloud, I met students who were graduate students in city planning and downtown development. I was so impressed with them and especially the ones coming out of MSU in Mankato, so I just decided I was going to get my graduate degree instead of going straight into the workforce. My dad is so intelligent and I just wanted to prove to him that I was going to do so well in school. (she laughs)
So, I got into the graduate program in Mankato while T.J. got a job in land surveying in the area.
That’s the path that took me to Mankato. As I was finishing my graduate program I knew it was time to look for a job in Mankato because at that point, I was pretty entrenched in this place. I picked up the newspaper and found the ad for the community building director of the United Way. It was the only job I applied for at the time because that was the only position that was open that really spoke to me. It used my background and knowledge, and it was macro work impacting the community on a large scale.
I was at the United Way for six years as the director of community building, which later changed to the director of community impact. That was a great first job. While there, I got to know a lot of community leaders in education, government, business and nonprofits. That connection in the community helped me understand the community at different levels and I think led to my interest in moving up into a stronger leadership role. I let people know that I was looking for a jump in responsibility in the community and that’s how I got called to interview for this job at Greater Mankato Growth.
Because when you came to oversee Visit Mankato it was a new entity, right?
It was transitioning. At that time it was the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was just being formed as its own LLC, separate from the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber and economic development corporation at that time was under Jonathan Zierdt’s leadership and was also in transition. That’s when Greater Mankato Growth Inc. was created, with the Convention and Visitors Bureau being its own LLC under that. I signed the papers to make it an official LLC at my first board meeting. That’s how new it was.
What year was that?
That was in September of 2007. That interview process by the way happened pretty quickly. They called and said, “Anna, we’d like you to interview for this position.” I went to the interview and it was an interview panel held in a conference room in the Wells Fargo building. The United Way was just down the street. I left that interview to go back to the United Way office and by the time I was about to enter the door to the United Way I got the call. It was literally within minutes that they were like, “Anna, we would like to talk to you about an offer.”
My life has just been so interesting with the way things have happened through the years. The progression has been kind of organic or just fell into place naturally without a lot of struggle.
So you came on board to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and then when you signed that LLC, what was your directive from them or what did they task you with doing at that time?
At that time, it was a traditional convention and visitors bureau interested in marketing the community for tourism. We are lucky because tourism here has three legs. We have leisure, conventions, and sports.
There are some communities that only have one leg, and typically that’s only leisure. For instance, they might only have a beach. In some, it’s only sporting facilities. But we are well balanced. I think that’s one of the things that’s made us such a strong community; we’re well balanced in almost every area across the board. That said, we are not immune to the ups and downs of the economy, especially after I first started in the position, with the slump of 2008-2009. We weren’t immune to that, but we fared much better than other communities did. Anyway, my charge was to make sure that we were bringing as many visitors to the community as possible through all of our marketing and sales efforts in that realm and we’ve continued to evolve since then.
When I started we had one full-time staff and a student worker who helped at the front desk. Then I was immediately tasked with hiring a new staff person to handle convention sales. It’s grown from there with our peak being at seven staff.
When did it become Visit Mankato and what was behind the thinking to rebrand it that way?
When we became our own LLC, we were still a part of the singular chamber brand. We all shared the same brand, the same elements, everything. We all looked the same. What I discovered is for a tourism bureau, it felt very buttoned up.
It was a chamber brand so it was very business-y and it didn’t feel like there was a lot of freedom to make it fun, inviting and exciting as you’re supposed to be for tourism. So that was the impetus to go after a tourism brand that could do that for us.
In 2013 we launched the new tourism brand, which was Mankato Now Playing. We also changed our organizational name to Visit Mankato, which was in alignment with this trend that had been happening and is still happening across the world. We were trying to get away from that very bureaucratic sounding convention and visitors bureau to “explore” whatever or “visit” wherever. We were at the forefront of a movement for tourism organization names to be more fun and descriptive.
It’s a brand that has fit and worked well.
It has been wonderful and I think that it speaks to what we have to offer here, which is exactly what a destination brand should do. Interestingly enough we are exploring the destination brand again to see how it could be expanded to encompass business development work. Stay tuned on that front.
So you had the traditional tourism, added convention sales, then in 2013 you added the Sports Commission under the Visit Mankato brand.
We moved into the new office and launched the new brand in 2013 and then we immediately went to work on the Sports Commission. The Sports Commission was launched in October 2014. We envisioned this new sub-entity to be not just a committee focused on sports, but it was really about engaging our community on a larger scale around the sporting economy.
That’s what that was about and it now has its own brand, a sister brand if you will. It has its own board of sports commissioners, which hold specific seats from representatives in the community. It’s still in the early stages, already having gone through a few phases in its development. I’d say it is finding its stride now.
Of course facilities were a huge piece of the Sports Commission early on, because the city was going after the extension of the local option sales tax. Once that process was done we had to step back from the facilities development conversation as it was becoming all-consuming and taking away from the true purpose of growing the sporting economy through events and services. Fundraising, feasibility studies and the like are not in the Sports Commission’s wheelhouse, but educating, advocating, and event development and support is.
There are always a lot of exciting things being planned. We developed the Mankato Marathon, are partnering on the Minnesota Senior Games, and we’ve got our hat in the ring for the Governor’s Fishing Opener. The Jack Frost Frolic is also a newly developed event by the Sports Commission.
Who is your target audience? When you’re marketing Mankato who is it that you’re going after or marketing to?
We actually mirror what the state of Minnesota is doing. We target our surrounding states, including South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, a little into North Dakota and then certainly all over the state of Minnesota with heavy emphasis on the metro market. We go after a lot of the drive market which speaks to a geographic draw, but we also go after people interested in niche experiences that fit what we have to offer. Like outdoor adventure, for instance, our trails offer many options for people who want to get out and get active. We have huge opportunities around that because we’re in this Minnesota River Valley and it’s so beautiful.
Or there are biking enthusiasts that will travel across the nation for a cool biking experience.
We have wonderful and diverse arts and culture and are now considered a destination for the niche audience seeking arts and cultural experiences.
In addition to that is sports. We have a lot of options for youth and adults, as well. Many of the opportunities we have are family-friendly, which is certainly a niche we target. Then throw into the mix major events like RibFest, Pow Wow and River Ramble. We make sure that we are pulling people in for those great events in our calendar.
When doing our research one thing that sets our brand essence apart and differentiates us from our competitors, is our accessibility. For example, we have all of these great opportunities for the outdoor enthusiasts who could just as easily go to the trails and the river and everything else in many communities, but we are an accessible community. Accessibility means you can get across town in 15 minutes. You can go from sledding or skiing at Mount Kato to having a beer at one of our breweries within 15 minutes. One of our sub taglines is “Everything is so close.” We’re also not as expensive as the metro areas that offer skiing, breweries and more. That’s another area of accessibility.
The marathon has been a big draw to Mankato, was that your brainchild?
It was not my brainchild. That’s an interesting history. We had the running community telling us they wanted a marathon here. At the same time, leadership for the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts was trying to put together a huge arts event at Riverfront Park. The two groups were brainstorming and wondering, “Could we do a marathon within this arts event and have it all at the same time?”
So they brought me in because it was a huge tourism opportunity. It was decided that this arts event over time could grow so big that it should have its own capacity in the community, and people coming for the marathon should not be fighting for a hotel room or a seat at the restaurant at the same time as people who want to listen to the symphony and see an art show. Ultimately, we decided to separate the events. I ended up taking on the marathon with this core group of runners that really were the brainchild for the marathon. Then we went after three different race management companies, in order to see who fit best with what we were trying to accomplish and that was Final Stretch.
Final Stretch has been with you the whole time. Right?
Yes, they have been with us from the beginning and they still are. Although our relationship with them is different now. Going into this 10th year, we took on full ownership of the marathon. Now we are contracting with Final Stretch, as their expertise is very important and they know our community very well.
It’s been a great event for Mankato in many ways.
It has, and that’s something that I’m so proud of. I remember Dick Beardsley was our keynote speaker at the very first expo of the marathon. It was standing room only. Mark Bongers, with Final Stretch, and I were on the stage before introducing Dick. We were providing opening remarks and welcoming everybody. I remember being so emotional. I wasn’t bawling or anything, but I was tearing up and saying something about how important the event was to me and how I was almost as proud to launch that event as I was having my children. I am almost sure I made some sort of correlation between the two. Because really I was working the equivalent of two full-time jobs for months to pull that event off with the small staff that we had at the time. It was a labor of love, and I’m so proud of it.
You should be, it’s really great. Would you say that’s your biggest accomplishment?
That’s certainly on the top of my list. I think establishing a tourism brand that distinguished us in that realm was a huge accomplishment. Also, strategically expanding the team, so that we can do more for the community has been good. Professionally, those top my list.
How many staff are you up to now?
Visit Mankato has five and a half full-time employees, because we’ve shifted some positions now. GMG and Visit Mankato are always looking to be efficient and effective with tax dollars so some of our staff, work across the multiple business platforms that we have.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge since taking over your role?
Oh goodness, it’s a good question. I should have been prepared for it too. I think the biggest challenge that organizations such as ours have, is the misunderstanding of what we really do. We do not produce widgets. We do not produce a lot of tangible things. The marathon can produce tangible measurements of success, but I cannot tell you how many people visited this community because of the advertising we pushed out. I can’t say how many saw our marketing of the city and decided to come visit or how much money they spent in our community while they were here. Because we cannot provide that information, it is a huge challenge and it always puts us in a defensive mode.
We try to be on the offense as much as possible as far as trying to share how we are adding value, but we’re always having to explain it in different ways, hoping people will understand the qualitative versus the quantitative value add. Another challenge is relevancy in the midst of all kinds of competitors who have a much larger checkbook. Think of your Googles and your Trip Advisors and Expedia. Many of them have come on the scene doing what a traditional convention and visitors bureau would do to promote their community. Typically website traffic would show intent to travel. However, if somebody can get everything they need from Trip Advisor and not have to go to our site, how do we prove then that what we are doing is valuable? Our website analytics may be down because people are getting their information from Google, but that doesn’t mean our promotions didn’t inspire them to consider Mankato as a destination. The world is changing fast and we have to do what we can to keep up and remain relevant.
That’s one reason I want to put you on the cover, because as a business magazine, I don’t know if everyone in the community quite understands how crucial Visit Mankato is to the success of the economy and business vitality here.
I know. We are just sort of “there” to many people. But if you do subtraction by subtraction, what does that look like? If you extract an organization such as ours, what is subtracted in the community and the economy? That could be scary. Florida is seeing it, there are cities and communities and states that have seen this severe plunge in their numbers when they underestimated the work of tourism promotion.
What would you say is your biggest impact on the community?
It’s certainly the traffic that we drive to our hospitality community. This year has been a wonderful year. The Mankato Marathon had a 20% growth, which is awesome. We had the air show in June, which we promoted heavily. We had a great year with a lot of brand new events such as the Aussie Peppers, which we also had a minor role in helping to attract and then promoted heavily.
I guess the point that I’m trying to make is there were peaks in traffic associated with certain events that we helped promote, but overall this year, demand for hotel rooms is 10% ahead this year over last year. That is a huge measure of the amount of visitor traffic that’s coming through, because we know that there are a lot of people who are also just driving in and out of this community. They may go to the mall, get a meal, attend an event and then drive home that night. They would still be considered a visitor if they are coming from outside of a 50-mile radius. But when you see hotel traffic go up the way it has, you know that is a lot more money flowing through the community than what was last year.
What would you like our readers to know about Visit Mankato or the work you’re doing?
I think that it’s about understanding how we help and work hand in hand with the business community here. For instance, area employers are trying to attract employees, they’re trying to make sure that their business continues to grow. We feed into that. A lot of people don’t understand this halo effect that tourism has. Something that is really important for the business community to understand, is that oftentimes a new resident, a new business, a new student starts with a visit. Nobody just decides to move to a community without visiting first to understand the culture and see what it’s like. There have been studies done by Longwoods International that prove this halo effect. It shows that tourism has produced these long-term economic development results by showing the result of people who have visited a community and then their inclination to start a career there, to bring a business there, to go to school there or retire there. Those inclinations significantly increase if they have seen destination marketing AND visited the community.
Visits are often the first glimpse at our community as people might have come for the Mankato Marathon, or a hockey game, to watch the Aussie Peppers play, or see the bison at Minneopa State Park. Tourism is the first date to long-term economic development. That’s why I come to work every day: that impact that we have on the community overall.
3 Civic Center Plaza #100
Mankato, MN 56001
Photo by Jonathan Smith