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"Nebraska Nice" is history.

Nebraska Tourism Director John Ricks, in his 10th month with the state's tourism commission, won't be looking for a new tag line to replace it. He's more interested in looking for visitors.

"The really good creative directors I know, they're looking at what the marketing challenge is. What's the problem to solve?" Ricks said.

The problem is that many people outside Nebraska have extremely low awareness and familiarity with the state, and aren't so likely to make Nebraska a vacation destination.

Ricks and the Nebraska Tourism Commission are solving the puzzle. The first step has been to redirect advertising to four targeted cities  and invite those folks to spend time in Nebraska. In two of the cities — Denver and Kansas City, some will get a personal invite, via their phones, just after they pass a Nebraska billboard.

A little spooky, but apparently effective.

Nebraska has a low profile in the tourism industry.

The Portrait of American Travelers study ranked the state 50th — dead last — among states people say they are interested in visiting in the next two years. It's been that way for at least four years, Ricks said.

"We have a lot of work to do to raise the awareness, familiarity of this state in out-of-state markets, and then that creates likelihood to visit," he said.

Ricks came to Nebraska with a long background in advertising. He most recently worked at an ad agency in Wyoming and then was associate director for the Colorado Tourism Office. He started his job in Nebraska in January.

A little increase in funding would help, and the director recently submitted his first state budget request.

The commission is funded by lodging fees, with no state general fund income. In this year's request, he asked only for authority to spend $500,000 in each of the next two fiscal years that has already been collected in the lodging fund and is sitting in reserve.

The commission would spend it on tourism promotion, including publication and print expenses, according to the budget request. It could expand research and seasonal monitoring and create high quality creative campaigns across all media, according to the budget request.

The commission's total budget of $6.5 million is only a third of the average $20.2 million for states nationally, and less than half of median state budgets of $13 million, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Ricks wants to make good use of the money the commission has, before asking for more new money. If he can grow the number of people staying in hotels, motels, resorts and bed and breakfast inns, the budget automatically increases, he said.

Tourists spent nearly $4.9 billion in the state in 2015 and generated $214 million in state and local taxes.

But awareness of Nebraska promotional ads were at 4 percent when last measured. Only 31 percent of people asked say they are somewhat or very familiar with the state as a vacation destination and 17 percent say they are likely to visit.

Every state, including Nebraska, has cool things to see and do, many of them things visitors discover after they get to the state, Ricks said. The problem to solve is how to get people to come to Nebraska in the first place to see the Sand Hills, the crane migration, the topographical and geographical differentiation and diversity of the land.

"We just have to find out how to communicate that to people, because for some reason we're not on their list," he said.

Last spring, he retargeted about $900,000 worth of TV advertising to markets that could generate the most visitors: Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City; Springfield, Missouri; and Denver, Colorado.

"We increased web traffic to visitnebraska.com. We increased (visitor) guide orders from each of those markets, significantly in the case of Denver and Kansas City," he said.

That campaign ran in May and June, and July was the largest lodging tax collection month ever, Ricks said. He can't track how the money applied specially to those campaigns, but he knows the effect is in there.

Those commercials had the "Through My Eyes" campaign theme, with emphasis on where to start planning for their visit. And in Kansas City and Denver, they added billboards with GPS technology that identified people who drove by and then sent messages on their phones inviting them to visit Nebraska.

"It worked. That's exciting," he said.

He's heard the refrain from people who live here that there's nothing to do. It's not true, he said.

The Passport program, in its seventh year, just exploded this year, with tens of thousands of people participating, he said. A record-setting 465 participants submitted Passports with all 80 stops stamped, compared to 168 people in 2016 and 81 in 2015.

Since arriving, Ricks has learned that Nebraskans are unique. Many of them were born and raised here. They're unpretentious, nonjudgmental, honest, real.

Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation, is from Red Cloud and one of the newest members of the tourism commission. The foundation gets a majority of visitors from out of the state and even out of the country.

"I'm very excited about the new direction that we're going," Olson said. "I think the focus on not only the out-of-state market but also the international market is going to be something that's a real game changer approach that we haven't taken in recent years, at least to my knowledge."

Ricks has brought a new energy, looking at everything with fresh eyes, digging into the data to make decisions on where and how to aim marketing, she said.

"We''re fortunate to have him at the helm," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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