Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, was breathing a little easier Thursday — one day after an additional $100,000 was pumped into a marketing campaign her organization plans to mount, promoting the city as a destination for winter fun.
Visit Duluth was running on empty as it headed into the winter season, until Duluth Economic Development Authority commissioners unanimously agreed to provide the organization with a financial shot in the arm Wednesday night.
In an effort to preserve dwindling resources, as its tourism tax support has shrunk dramatically in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Visit Duluth has trimmed what was once a staff of 11 to just three people, all of whom have taken pay cuts, according to Tanski. She said the additional funding will enable her to hire back two furloughed staffers: a web designer and social media/video production specialist.
But Tanski said 82% of the funds will be spent directly on marketing, rather than the staff needed to support the campaign.
Visit Duluth will target residents living around the Twin Cities; Fargo, North Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and nearly all of Iowa. With travel restrictions still in place, however, no promotional dollars will be spent in traditionally strong Canadian markets.
The Duluth City Council recently agreed to provide $300,000 of support to Spirit Mountain to help the struggling ski hill reopen for the winter season, after fears of COVID-19 forced it to close down for most of the year.
That investment could be for nothing without sufficient marketing, noted Chris Fleege, DEDA's executive director, acknowledging that could set Spirit Mountain up to fail.
Tanski agreed, and said Visit Duluth is coordinating closely with Spirit Mountain.
"You can't have one without the other. You can't just open a venue and anticipate that people will flock there. You have to be in front of them. And I think it's also important to really reinforce the message that people can visit Duluth safely, that we have, thanks to Mother Nature, so many different ways to experience our community in a safe and naturally distanced manner," Tanski said.
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Fleege pointed out that numerous local businesses benefit when tourists are drawn to the city to participate in winter activities, whether at Spirit Mountain, the Bentleyville Tour of Lights or the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
DEDA Commissioner Mark McShane concurred.
"I think Mr. Fleege hit the nail on the head," he said. "The downstream businesses in the community as a whole ultimately benefit greatly from the efforts of Visit Duluth. These are unprecedented times, and now, more than ever, we need a voice for the community as a whole."
To date, Visit Duluth, which operates as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, has failed to qualify for federal COVID-19 relief under programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, and while Tanski said she believes federal assistance will eventually arrive, gridlock in Washington, D.C., all but assures it will not come soon enough.
She noted that families are already beginning to make winter travel plans. That's why Tanski expressed such gratitude for DEDA's financial support.
"So these dollars are more critical than ever to really let us continue the important work we're doing to keep as many jobs in place and as many businesses open as possible, as we all continue to navigate the winter months," Tanski said.
With funding now in hand, Tanski said Visit Duluth is prepared to launch its winter marketing campaign quickly in the days to come. "We're ready, and there will be an immediate impact to our industry, thanks to this investment from DEDA," she predicted.