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Duluth enlists social media influencers to help tourists scroll into town

Visit Duluth and a Rochester-based startup are connecting Zenith City attractions with creators who come to the area and share their adventures.

Two figures on paddleboards are shown against the sunrise on a still lake surface.
The Twin Cities based blogger behind Lizanne Lately shared her Duluth paddleboarding experiences via Instagram (@lizannelately) as part of a partnership with Zenith Adventure.
Contributed / Zenith Adventure
We are part of The Trust Project.

DULUTH — When you hear the term "social media influencer," you might think about Kim Kardashian or Charli D'Amelio. Such superstars will happily deal with brands like Hollister and Midori, but the typical influencer is actually someone more like Kristen Glazer.

A woman wearing a peach sundress and sunglasses looks at the camera while sitting on a blanket on a sandy beach in front of an expansive lake.
Kristen Glazer (@expeditionkristen) visited Park Point Beach in summer 2022 as part of a content partnership with Visit Duluth.
Contributed / Expedition Kristen

"I work full time in a marketing job," explained the Minneapolis resident, who calls her Expedition Kristen project "a side hustle."

Visit Duluth was glad to have Glazer hustle up north for a summer visit. She and her husband stayed at Enger Lofts, roamed Leif Erickson Park, played ping-pong at Jade Fountain, and rode the North Shore Scenic Railroad. She chronicled it all for Expedition Kristen's 17,800 Instagram followers as well as on platforms including Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest and an email newsletter.

"We know that user-generated content is where a lot of folks are getting their information," said Tricia Hobbs, senior economic developer for the city of Duluth. She referred to "those trusted folks you follow that what they do is, they create content to help you understand different travel opportunities and places you can go."

With Visit Duluth, the city's recently reconfigured tourism marketing project, Hobbs works to enlist creators like Glazer and connect them with local attractions. Influencers are typically "comped," so they don't have to pay for what they experience. Often, they are additionally paid for their time and cooperation.

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Sarah Pohl works with creators on behalf of the Vista Fleet, Zenith Adventure and Free Air Life Co. (All three enterprises are owed by Sarah Steinbach and Justin Steinbach, and share some staff.) Pohl said the key to good, authentic content is to ensure creators are the right fit for her brands.

Free Air Life Co opened earlier this month in a neighborhood that was a "natural fit."

"We've never done a partnership where we just do it over the phone, or over the computer," Pohl explained. "We've always had influencers come into our shop, or on the boat or in the store so they can get the full experience."

Some Duluth companies, like Pohl's employers as well as Enger Lofts and Pier B, work regularly with influencers and move comfortably within that space. Others, said Hobbs, are newer to that style of marketing and appreciate the help Visit Duluth provides.

A smiling woman dressed for cool-weather hiking stands in front of a rocky backdrop.
Influencer Lizanne Lately showcased merchandise from Duluth's Free Air Life Co. in a photo posted to her Instagram account (@lizannelately) as part of a promotional agreement in 2021.
Contributed / Free Air Life Co.

"I think there is value in helping them navigate that space and create an opportunity to get the word out there through some more of those organic channels," said Hobbs. "We've had a lot of response from attractions, hotels, restaurants and everything in between."

"Organic," in this case, means showcasing attractions in ways that reach potential visitors through people they trust, not by placing advertisements. "As a social media manager," said Pohl, "over the past year I've only worked off of influencers. I haven't put any money into advertising."

Traditional travel journalism is still important: Hobbs said Duluth got "great traction" from recent mentions in the Washington Post and Travel Awaits. Working with independent creators, though, allows Visit Duluth to tailor recommendations to specific target groups, and to highlight the kind of experiences that quick overviews might neglect.

"We really try to take folks to either parts of the city that they maybe have not been, or that travelers aren't traditionally visiting," said Hobbs, "to show them hidden gems and all the different neighborhoods."

A neighborhood landmark in Spirit Valley, the Jade Fountain is off the beaten path for most tourists. Glazer paid it a visit as part of the itinerary she planned with Visit Duluth.

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"We pull up to the front of it and it's this dark building with no windows," Glazer recounted. "My husband and I are like, 'Where are they leading us?' And then we get inside and the decor was so beautiful, these gorgeous paintings ... and the ping-pong table, and the cocktails were excellent. It just was this really cool place that we would have never known about."

Visit Duluth is among dozens of Minnesota destination marketing organizations that use a platform called Shrpa to connect with influencers. Chris Lukenbill, a co-founder of the Rochester-based startup, said the ability to customize creators' experiences is a big part of the appeal.

"What our platform allows you to do," said Lukenbill, "is to go through and fill out, basically, a form that says, 'Here's what we're looking to highlight, here's the locations that we want to highlight, here's a time of year we'd like to bring you in,' even 'Here's the time of the week,' sometimes."

Woman wearing sleeveless floral tee holds camera standing on rocky beach with Aerial Lift Bridge visible in background.
Annabelle Paquin, of Duluth, wore a shirt from local clothier Free Air Life Co. in a photo posted to her Instagram account (@abellexo12) in June.
Contributed / Free Air Life Co.

Hobbs said Visit Duluth is working to promote the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall, as well as winter. "How do we get people thinking about Duluth differently?" she asked. "Even when it's really cold, you just have to have the right clothes and a little bit of good advice on what to do with your time."

Shrpa launched in 2019, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to temporarily shut down the travel industry. Lukenbill said, though, that destination marketing organizations were eager to show potential visitors what they could offer, even in trying times. Explore Minnesota, the statewide tourism marketing organization, offers co-op programs that can partially defray the costs of influencer campaigns.

"That was a great way for these communities to help promote (themselves), especially as they were starting to come out of that COVID time," said Lukenbill. "That's really where we started to grow throughout Minnesota." Shrpa is now expanding into other states in the Midwest and beyond. They're currently working with Arkansas, said Lukenbill, on a program similar to Minnesota's.

It wasn't just the demand for content creators that rose in recent years — the supply rose as well, with people like Glazer taking advantage of the lull to launch new projects.

"Everything was being shut down and canceled, and I didn't have a lot to do and wanted to find a way to be creative," said Glazer, who launched Expedition Kristen in 2020. "It started with my Instagram, wanting to post pictures of hikes ... and it really took on a life of its own."

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Other influencers who have experienced the area as part of Visit Duluth's efforts include a "best friend duo" whose brand is Thrifty with a Compass. They praised Duluth's walkability while strolling the shore, credited The Rathskeller for "craft cocktails that don't break the bank," and explored the Lincoln Park Craft District.

FamilyFindsMN is the project of a family of three who set out to "share reviews with our followers as well as document our experience as a Black family in Minnesota." They played virtual golf at the Caddy Shack, dipped their toes into Lake Superior, and enjoyed a sweet treat from Love Creamery.

In Glazer's experience, people making travel plans by flipping through feeds are ready for a deeper dive into tourist destinations. "I find that when I write about smaller towns or lesser-known restaurants, those types of articles and posts on social media get much better engagement," she said, "because it's new, and it's actually informative."

Woman in blue sleeveless shirt smiles and plays ping pong in a wood-paneled room with drop-panel ceiling and kitschy Asian inspired decor.
Kristen Glazer (@expeditionkristen) enjoyed a ping-pong game at Jade Fountain in this photo created as part of a partnership with Visit Duluth.
Contributed / Expedition Kristen

Evidence of engagement is key when Pohl is considering creators to work with. "It's really important to find somebody that engages with their followers," she said. "It's really important to see that their fan base and their followers are actually engaging with them, so that they really are real followers. They're not just a number."

Hobbs said she's experienced first-hand how social media influencers can help inspire a vacation plan. "I planned my itinerary for Chicago in October almost exclusively with my Instagram account and TikTok account," she said. "Just looking through what different folks recommend."

Pohl said that seeing her companies' offerings through the lens of social media helps the staff understand what people are responding to. Partnering with family-oriented influencers, she said, helped inspire the Vista Fleet's "Family Fun" cruise: a partnership with the Duluth Children's Museum.

As this article went to press, Vista Fleet was planning an upcoming partnership with a family of bloggers who create under the name Midwest Nomad. "We have them coming on just a daily sightseeing cruise," said Pohl, "and they're like, 'Well, what else should we do while we're in Duluth that day?'" Pohl suggested a kayak rental from Zenith Adventure, and also pointed the family toward other local businesses.

"We built this whole day of fun for them, just off that one partnership," said Pohl. "We built them a day to talk about in Duluth that any family would want to do, and would attract them to travel here too."

Three bands played live sets on a two-hour cruise Thursday night, alternating between decks. It felt, in the best way, like a house show on the water.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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