The number of travel websites has exploded, including those listing the Top 50 tourist spots, Top 25 things to do or Top 10 free activities in the St. Louis area.
But Illinois attractions rarely show up on these lists, even the big ones like Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world and only 15 minutes from the Gateway Arch.
This adds to the challenge for metro-east tourism officials, who have been fighting the physical and psychological barrier created by the Mississippi River for decades.
“They have an interesting philosophy in St. Louis,” said Dan Krankeola, president and CEO of Illinois South Tourism, which promotes 22 counties, including St. Clair and part of Madison. “If they don’t have to cross the river, they don’t want to. It’s very well-known.”
Krankeola understands why websites sponsored by or affiliated with Missouri businesses, organizations and agencies would focus on Missouri tourism. Illinoisans do the same thing.
Illinois South partners with St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission to attract visitors to the region, but their goals are different for what happens once those visitors get here.
“They’re wanting people to stay in St. Louis,” Krankeola said. “I’m wanting them to come to our 22 counties.”
Brett Stawar, president of Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, which covers Jersey and Calhoun counties and part of Madison, is in the same boat.
He feels lucky when Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton and the Great River Road show up in St. Louis publications or websites listing best day trips in the St. Louis area.
“It’s very one-sided,” Stawar said. “There’s not nearly as much out there on what is going on in Illinois as what is going on in Missouri.”
Competition and cooperation
If you do a Google search for “Things to do in the St. Louis area,” the first link usually is for Explore St. Louis, the website of St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission.
That leads to the web page “25 Things to Do in St. Louis,” which includes specific locations such as the St. Louis Zoo and The Magic House, as well as general categories ranging from shopping and food to live music and theater.
Each category gives examples, but Cahokia Mounds is the only one east of the Mississippi.
They’re wanting people to stay in St. Louis. I’m wanting them to come to our 22 counties.
Dan Krankeola on tourism goals
Lumiere Place and River City Casino in St. Louis are mentioned, but not the Casino Queen in East St. Louis or Argosy Casino Alton. Pole Position Raceway, an indoor go-kart track in Crestwood, Missouri, falls under “Indulge your inner gearhead,” but not the 75,000-seat Gateway Motorsports Park just across the river in Madison.
“We’re funded by the hotel taxes that are collected in St. Louis city and St. Louis County,” said Anthony Paraino, the commission’s director of communications. “So primarily what you’re going to see on our site are things happening in St. Louis.”
That doesn’t mean lack of cooperation, Paraino said, noting the commission has many partnerships with Illinois attractions and tourism bureaus and helps promote their activities in other ways.
Stawar is excited about a commission working group created recently to promote eco-tourism, hiking, biking and other outdoor activities in Missouri and Illinois.
“They’re our friends,” he said of his St. Louis counterparts. “We work closely with them.”
Address trumps proximity
The second link that usually shows up in Google search results for “Things to do in the St. Louis area” belongs to the national online travel company TripAdvisor.
Its St. Louis web page lists 266 places and activities — all of them in Missouri.
“That’s how we have it engineered,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Monahan, noting the company organizes by zip code and state, based on what is typed into the search bar, so Illinois results would never show up in a St. Louis search.
TripAdvisor’s mobile app has a “Near Me Now” option that makes recommendations based on the locations of travelers “exploring on the go,” she said.
The company’s list of 266 St. Louis destinations mixes big names with relatively obscure parks, churches, cemeteries, health clubs and swimming pools, many far west of downtown.
There’s no mention of Cahokia Mounds, Gateway, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Lewis & Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, National Great Rivers Museum in Alton or GCS Ballpark in Sauget.
That doesn’t surprise Bill Iseminger, assistant manager in charge of public relations at Cahokia Mounds, which gets 300,000 visitors a year from more than 80 countries.
“We’re in a different state,” he said.
The historic site has a publicity advantage because of its national coverage in travel magazines and TV documentaries and its designation as a world heritage site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Iseminger always is amazed by the number of local residents who come for the first time only when out-of-town company suggests it.
“We used to call that the ‘Statue of Liberty syndrome,’” he said. “People who live near the Statue of Liberty sort of take it for granted because it’s in their own back yard.”
People who live near the Statue of Liberty sort of take it for granted because it’s in their own back yard.
Bill Iseminger on local tourism habits
A whopping four Illinois sites — Cahokia Mounds, Great Rivers, Lewis & Clark and the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge — appear in National Geographic Travel suggestions for “Free Things to Do in St. Louis” from 2010.
More recently, Cahokia Mounds and Great Rivers made a list of the “15 Best Free Attractions in St. Louis for 2017” on the travel website TripSavvy. It was compiled by David O’Brien, 46, of St. Louis, who writes with his wife, Deborah, about things to do in the region.
O’Brien points out that many online St. Louis travel guides seem to be written by non-residents. His proximity to Illinois locations increases his familiarity with them.
“We live in the city,” said O’Brien, whose full-time job is marketing director at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. “For us, it’s no different to go to Cahokia Mounds or the Great Godfrey Maze than Chesterfield or St. Charles. I don’t think we see the border as much. We go where we think we’re going to have a good time.”
Filling the promotions gap
The age-old question for people in the metro-east tourism industry is how to persuade St. Louisans to cross the Mississippi River and get Missouri tourists to check out Illinois.
Sometimes Krankeola and Stawar advertise in publications or on websites that target St. Louis, Chicago or national audiences.
“St. Louis is our No. 1 feeder market as far as tourism, and that includes overnight stays,” Stawar said. “There are more than two million people in the metro area. But (that market is) followed very closely by Chicago.”
In 2015, more than 20 businesses and organizations launched a Get to Know M.E. campaign, promoting the metro-east as a good place to live, work and play.
This year, Illinois South made a big push with St. Louis advertising. It paid to have 30,000 copies of its visitor guide mailed to St. Louis Magazine subscribers with the February issue and its Tourism Times newsletter with the May issue.
“We’re constantly trying to market this area to the St. Louis marketplace,” Krankeola said.
The internet allows individual businesses and organizations to promote themselves through websites and Facebook pages, but it isn’t always easy positioning Illinois attractions high in Google search results.
Perhaps most exciting is when a St. Louis TV morning show hosts a segment on an Illinois festival or a St. Louis radio deejay broadcasts live from an Illinois bar.
Stawar has noticed a positive phenomenon in recent years: An increase in the number of Kansas City visitors to the Alton area.
“My theory is just that the population (in Kansas City) has boomed, and maybe they’ve been to St. Louis a few times and they’re wanting to see what’s on the other side,” he said. “There’s definitely an uptick.”