(Winona, MN) Some of Winona’s favorite places and people were recognized last week at the Visit Winona Annual Tourism Celebration – an event designed to shine a spotlight on the importance of tourism to the area’s economy. With more than 100 people in attendance, the local tourism marketing organization kicked off the evening by presenting its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award to Mayor Mark Peterson, who set to retire as executive director of the Winona County Historical Society shortly. Visit Winona executive director Pat Mutter praised Peterson’s visionary leadership of the Historical Society for more than three decades and called him one of Visit Winona’s deepest and most helpful supporters. Peterson, who was not aware that he would be receiving the award, was also surprised by his daughter, who came down from the Twin Cities and was covertly hidden behind the scenes until the presentation was underway.

Visit Winona also revealed the results of several weeks of voting for finalists in the Hidden Gem, Tourism Rock Star, and People’s Choice Award categories. In all, more than 2,500 votes were cast for the finalists, and organizers said that voting was so robust that, in more than one case, just a handful of votes separated the winner from the others. Each winner received an engraved acrylic trophy that resembles the pinnacle of Sugar Loaf bluff.

Local company Nice Minnesota, owned by Hayley and Scott Hornberg, received honors as Winona’s Hidden Gem – a category created for companies, places, or organizations that might not be obvious tourism draws but that are delightful discoveries for visitors when they come upon them. Nice Minnesota sells a variety of Winona and Minnesota apparel and accessories, most of which are emblazoned with playful messaging that highlights some of the area’s favorite attractions. The merchandise is available in shops throughout the area.

Tourism Rock Star, an award intended to recognize people whose efforts and energies have improved the visitor experience in Winona, went to Ed Hoffman, founder of Ed’s (no name) Bar and co-owner of The Boat House restaurant. Hoffman’s passion for live music helped him create a thriving music scene in Winona, which quickly became a legendary stop for many of the region’s up and coming bands. Hoffman also took advantage of personal connections and block booking arrangements to snag many acts traveling through the region who were otherwise much more likely to be seen on large urban stages. His efforts with the Boat House have been praised for the niche the restaurant fills in the community.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum took home the People’s Choice Award – a designation that recognizes the region’s favorite visitor attractions. Loved by locals and visitors alike, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is credited with putting Winona on a world map with regard to art, as its collections contain work from some of the world’s greatest masters. Since its opening in 2006, the museum has attracted tens of thousands of visitors and landed the city mentions in some of the globe’s most important art publications.

Visit Winona also presented its Partnership Excellence Award – this year recognizing the Plaza Hotel and Suites for its commitment to a quality visitor experience and assistance in Visit Winona’s efforts. In naming the Plaza, Visit Winona leaders extolled the hotel management’s willingness to train its staff on all of the wonderful things about Winona – even when it meant making them climb Sugar Loaf so they could tell visitors about it. They also praised the hotel as an integral partner that substantially collaborated with Visit Winona on the organization’s mission to attract overnight visitors to the area.

As an industry that garnered more than $111 million in gross sales in Winona County last year and employs more than 2,500 people, hospitality and leisure is a massive, though often unrecognized, economic force for a region. As they recognize the potential of it, communities across the state and country are scrambling to position themselves for those tourism dollars, though Winona has a distinct advantage over similarly sized communities thanks to its thriving arts and culture scene, abundant outdoor recreation, and proximity to several large metropolitan areas. The Visit Winona Tourism Celebration was held during National Tourism Week – a nationwide effort to recognize the importance of tourism in vital communities.