Is city doing all it can to sell 'exotic Duluth'?

A recent analysis that compares the popularity of Duluth to other travel destinations has raised questions about whether the city is doing enough to market itself to the world.

Visit Duluth homepage
Visit Duluth spends about $30,000 per year to develop its website, pictured last week. One Internet marketing specialist says more could be done to promote Duluth tourism online.

A recent analysis that compares the popularity of Duluth to other travel destinations has raised questions about whether the city is doing enough to market itself to the world.

The study, which measures online searches and social networking activity, was put together by Marty Weintraub, the CEO of AimClear, a 16-person Duluth-based ad firm that specializes in search-engine optimization and Internet marketing.

Weintraub said his purpose in putting together the report wasn't to drum up business for his company, but rather to stir discussion.

"I've traveled all over the world, and Duluth is as exotic as any place on Earth," Weintraub said of the city he calls home. "It's one of the most beautiful places. Where's the drive to make it internationally famous? Where's the imagination?"

In particular, Weintraub asserts through his analysis of Google Analytics and Facebook data that the city has failed to use digital media to effectively reach out to national and international markets. He suggests the city should mount a more aggressive online campaign touting all the area has to offer. Weintraub suggested Duluth devote more of the revenues it collects through hospitality taxes to heighten its online profile.


But Terry Mattson, the director of Visit Duluth, an entity created to market the city as a tourist destination, questions the idea of redirecting money. Visit Duluth annually receives nearly $1.5 million from city tourism taxes -- or roughly 20 percent of total collections.

"Our goal is to get the maximum return on investment we can and put heads in beds," said Mattson, noting that research has shown Duluth's marketing dollars can most effectively be used to draw tourists from nearby markets, such as the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.

Those efforts to cultivate a regional market have paid off over the past decade, according to Mike Seyfer, vice president of H.T. Klatzky & Associates, Visit Duluth's primary advertising firm.

"The research demonstrates the majority of our visitors come from the Twin Cities area, and they have a propensity to return. They're not one-and-done visitors," he said.

Duluth's hospitality tax receipts have shown 19 consecutive years of growth, despite the recent recession, and for the first eight months of 2011, collections are running 5.6 percent ahead of last year's pace.

Visit Duluth estimates about 3.5 million people visit the city annually and collectively spend $750 million, supporting about 18,000 local jobs.

Nevertheless, Weintraub contends Duluth could do better. He points to Fargo, N.D., and Clearwater Beach, Fla., as markets that recently have achieved more dramatic growth in Internet interest, according to his analysis of data.

"Duluth is not breaking out as we think it could and should," he said. "Having year-over-year revenue growth is an awesome thing, but the point is that we didn't grow the way some other places have."


Seyfer said that based on his own review of Google Analytics data, he thinks Duluth's travel-related online activity holds up well to the two cities Weintraub cites as standouts.

Mattson said Visit Duluth probably spends about $20,000 annually for online advertising. But he noted his staff also spends considerable time tending to Visit Duluth's website, which he said has become a significant portal for visitors. Visit Duluth also spends about another $30,000 per year on contractors who have helped develop the website.

That's not enough, according to Todd Torvinen, president and chief financial officer of ZMC Hotels, a Duluth-based company that owns and operates 31 properties nationwide.

"I think Visit Duluth could do a much better job of marketing our city online and using social media," he said. "A budget of $20,000 to $30,000 per year doesn't cut it. Our company alone will spend $300,000 to $400,000 online this year. It's a huge focus for us."

Torvinen said it would be foolish to ignore Weintraub, whom he considers a credible expert in online marketing.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he's also interested in exploring Weintraub's findings.

"Obviously, Marty is a national leader in his field, and he brings an interesting perspective to this discussion. I think we should take the best of his ideas and consider them," Ness said. "If we use the right strategies and are creative, we can reach new demographics that we wouldn't otherwise.

"Tourism has, and continues to be, one of Duluth's great success stories. But there are always more opportunities to reach different segments of the tourism market."


Mattson said he's comfortable with Visit Duluth's current strategy, but said the organization is constantly evaluating its effectiveness. For now, he said he favors an approach that thoughtfully employs a balanced mix of mediums, including digital, print, broadcast and outdoor advertising. He also noted that direct person-to-person contact continues to be the most effective sales tool when it comes to drawing conventions and other large events to town.

"We will continue to dedicate more resources over time to digital marketing, but it would not be a wise move to abandon the other things we do and pour all of our money into it," Mattson said.

Ness suggests a strategy shift still may be worthy of consideration. Finding fault with any past performance by Visit Duluth is of little value in his eyes, however.

"I'm not interested in looking backward," he said. "I'm interested in the future."

For a link to Weintraub's findings, click here .

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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