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Our View: Marketing Duluth to Arizona has promise

The briefest of glances out the window tells you all you need to know about why so many around here fly away this time of year to sunny, warm destinations like Arizona.

But what about Arizonans coming to the Northland? In the summer, they could come to escape the stifling desert heat. In the winter, they could come to play in our snow. Anytime, they could come here to ski, kayak, canoe, bike, hike, fish, camp in the Boundary Waters, and more. Do they know that?

Selling Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin as a gotta-get-there travel destination to Arizonans, with Duluth International Airport as their portal, is at the heart of an emerging new marketing campaign that has our airport and visitors' bureau, Visit Duluth, partnering for the first time.

The two are making plans to apply in March or April for a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the money to be used to attract Arizonans from the Phoenix-Mesa area to the Northland and to line up a low-cost carrier like an Allegiant or a Frontier to fly them. If the grant comes through — we should know by early summer — an all-out, two-year, come-north marketing blitz could be everywhere in the Phoenix-Mesa area by 2018, including on televisions, billboards, social media and more, maybe even virtual reality.

"There are 8 million people in that geographic area for us to target as new visitors," Visit Duluth President and CEO Anna Tanski said in an interview this week with the News Tribune editorial board. "We'll target the summer months as a refreshing getaway, as a refreshing destination where you walk outside and your lungs (don't) burn out because it's 120 degrees. ...

"There's an appetite down there for all the experiences we have to offer here," Tanski continued, mentioning specifically the Northland's wealth of outdoor recreation. "Just like when people go skiing in Colorado, (visitors will fly here) with their bikes and other outdoors equipment."

"We're always searching for new air service opportunities; that's no secret," Duluth Airport Authority Executive Director Tom Werner told the editorial board. "We'll be telling the people of Phoenix-Mesa that Duluth is the place where you need to come for your vacation, your weeklong trips to see snowbirds (or) relatives that you may have here. We're marketing the destination. ... We think this has some real legs."

The aggressive new initiative is a bit of a thinking-bigger departure for Duluth. We market our region as a drive-to destination in places like the Twin Cities; Eau Claire, Wis.; Fargo, N.D.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Des Moines, Iowa. Marketing in Chicago, where United offers direct flights to and from Duluth, is limited to online and social media. Little attempt has ever been made to woo visitors who would have to fly here, especially from warm climes where we all go or want to go.

Such marketing was discussed before 2014, when Allegiant ended several years of Duluth-to-Phoenix service. It could happen now with a grant known as the "Small Community Air Service Grant."

And that'd be good. New construction last year increased the number of hotel rooms in the Twin Ports by 10 percent. And the builders aren't done yet. The abundance of rooms needs to be filled.

"If we're not being proactive in trying to reach new markets and new visitors, we will struggle with occupancy levels," Tanski said. "That is something we are very mindful of and a reason we're trying to be proactive. So the timing of this grant works out very well. This is a very good time for us to pursue a brand new market."

With the grant application pending, airport officials already have been in talks with a carrier to fly again between Duluth and Phoenix-Mesa. Werner wouldn't say which carrier. He didn't want to jeopardize any negotiations.

"The grant is a big piece of the puzzle," he said. "We're not sitting still, either in the tourism industry or in the airport industry, and we're working to make everyone's quality of life better here."

The Phoenix-Mesa market and the joint airport-Visit Duluth marketing campaign present "an opportunity that stands above the rest right now," Werner said. It certainly seems to have the promise to benefit in a big way all of the Northland.