Tilly: How to boost Iowa tourism

BY ZACH TILLY | MARCH 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Gov. Terry Branstad trotted out a new tourism plan on Monday, which will include a $1.5 million ad campaign to promote Iowa in neighboring TV markets — Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Kansas City, and Omaha — as a vacation hotspot.

Unfortunately, the weather is unbearable eight months out of the year, and all of those cities and their respective states have tourist destinations at least on par with Iowa’s. Even Branstad himself hits the road for his vacations in picturesque Sedona, Ariz.

So, really, what do we have to offer as a tourist destination?  Not a ton, but I have an idea to boost Iowa tourism that will blow Branstad’s out of the water.

See, as it stands, the only people who really seem eager to come to Iowa are presidential candidates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was here a few weeks ago, Rick Santorum will be here campaigning for Secretary of State Matt Schultz later this month, Mike Huckabee will be here in April. So on and so forth.

As it happens, according to a Des Moines Register poll, a whole lot of Iowans would be happy to see many of the folks who have run for president before back in the state for the 2016 race. Sizeable majorities of Democrats say they’d like to see Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden run again; similar majorities of Republicans say they’d like to see Paul Ryan, Huckabee, and Perry again.

Clearly, these candidates have some pull in Iowa and probably in the surrounding area, too. They could mean big tourism bucks if they were to be harnessed in the right way.

Now, it’s also the case that Iowa, by virtue of its rich history and position along a major national transportation corridor, has an abundance of roadside attractions and oddities. The Iowa 80 (world’s largest) Truck Stop is right up the road, for example.

So how can we as a state capitalize on these two potentially fruitful resources? Well, I have some mutually beneficial suggestions for coupling candidates and Iowa tourist attractions that will give guys such as Biden and Perry some extra face time in Iowa and Branstad and the state economy a little extra tourism cash.

How could we make Albert the Bull, the 30-foot-tall concrete bull in Audubon, a must-see? How about slapping a cowboy-hat-wearin’ Perry on top of that bad boy 120 days a year? Yee-haw!

If you haven’t made a stop at the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, the world’s largest man-made grotto and a nine-part commemoration of the life of Jesus Christ, you certainly will once we sign former Arkansas Gov. and ordained minister Huckabee to a Billy-Joel-at-MSG-style deal: one sermon a month every month forever. Boom.

Hey do you happen know what the state fruit of Delaware is? No? Well Diamond Joe Biden knows: It’s the strawberry. To honor his Delaware roots and his new Iowa family, he’s going to be shaking hands every Sunday in 2014 under the World’s Largest Strawberry in Strawberry Point.

And for those Trekkies among us looking to add a little Rand to their Roddenberry, we’ll have Paul Ryan in full Starfleet gear at the future birthplace of James T. Kirk in Riverside four nights a week. Ryan’s always looking to tap into the youth culture —Rage Against the Machine, anyone? — so let’s get a little brand synergy going by matching the hottest young Republican on the block with the red-hot Star Trek  franchise.

So let’s go, Branstad. Every minute we waste without making this happen is a tourism opportunity squandered.

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