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Duluth mayor wants to revamp tourism efforts, hire Minneapolis firm to promote city

Under the proposal, Visit Duluth would lose out on a $1.8 million contract for marketing and promotional work, leaving the longtime visitors' bureau to assess its future with the city.

FILE: Emily Larson
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson speaks at an event on the Lakewalk on June 5, 2021. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson on Tuesday announced plans to overhaul the city's tourism efforts, shifting the bulk of the work away from longtime partner Visit Duluth.

Under her proposal, Minneapolis-based Bellmont Partners would assume marketing and promotional responsibilities for the city, receiving a $1.8 million budget in 2022, with options to continue the relationship over the following two years.

Visit Duluth would still maintain a presence, continuing to handle convention coordination and visitor center operations at a budget of $400,000 next year. But it would be a much smaller role for the entity that has served as the city's sole promoter for more than 85 years.

"Choosing a new approach is not about what was lacking in the existing partnerships that we had," Larson said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall. "It is about what's possible, and elevating our brand, expanding our audiences, engaging new voices from throughout the community, leveraging our investments and using data to get us there."

The announcement sent Visit Duluth board members into an emergency meeting Tuesday evening. President and CEO Anna Tanski said leaders were delivered the news earlier that day, giving them little time to react.

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"At this time the Visit Duluth team and board of directors are working hard to reach a decision regarding the proposal to manage the convention and sports sales effort on behalf of the city,” Tanski said in a statement to the News Tribune.

“We’ve requested some additional information from Mayor Larson to assist in this process and ensure we make an informed decision that produces a successful outcome for the city.”

FILE: Anna Tanski
Visit Duluth President and CEO Anna Tanski poses for a photograph Feb. 19, 2014. Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Firms emerge from bidding process

Visit Duluth, the nonprofit formerly known as the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, has served as the city's sole promoter dating back to 1935, receiving public funds and operating with a private board. But Larson's administration in May decided to create a first-of-its-kind public bidding process for both tourism marketing services and convention sales.

The request for qualifications resulted in applications from 28 firms — five in Duluth, 15 from elsewhere in Minnesota and eight from out of state, according to data from the city. Nine were selected for first-round interviews, and five ended up moving forward to the second round — all from Minnesota, including two local firms, one of which was Visit Duluth.

Larson, Council Vice President Arik Forsman and other city staff members served on the panel that reviewed the applications and conducted interviews. The mayor called Bellmont and its partners at South Dakota-based Lawrence & Schiller "the right fit for right now."

"Bellmont partners has a proven storytelling approach to tourism and hospitality that is rooted in data, a live dashboard, a visitor interface, media reach, marketing, accounting, extensive target audience research and very tangible, specific outcomes," she said.

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Bellmont's past clients have included Explore Minnesota, the Mall of America, the Uptown Art Fair in Minneapolis, Public Art St. Paul and the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

Bellmont partner Shelli Lissick declined an interview Tuesday, saying she wanted to remain "respectful of the Duluth City Council process." But she released a brief statement, calling it a "dream assignment" for the two companies.

“As longtime visitors to Duluth, we’re thrilled about the prospect of putting our years of tourism experience to work for the city," Lissick said. "We look forward to presenting our capabilities and vision to the City Council."

Questions arise about exporting work

Larson and Bellmont representatives are expected to present additional details and field questions from city councilors at a committee of the whole session before Monday's meeting. The council, at this point, is being asked to allow city administration to negotiate contracts with both Bellmont and Visit Duluth.

At least one councilor expressed concern about the plan in the hours after it was unveiled. In response to an email from a citizen who criticized spending tax dollars on an out-of-town firm, Councilor Joel Sipress wrote: "I share your concerns and remain to be convinced that the administration’s proposal is the right way to go."

Larson earlier defended the proposal, suggesting conventions were "an area of strength" for Visit Duluth while suggesting that general marketing could stand to receive a "fresh" look.

"What worked well in the presentation from Bellmont was their ability to translate what tourism can also look like from an outsider," the mayor said. "The thirst for materials, for stories, can have a different perspective.

"And a conversation we've already had with Bellmont is also about how do we broaden the local relationships. Whether it's using local photography, video, print — there's a lot of very strong local investments that will come as a part of that contract, because having that connection is really important."

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Mayor seeks 'thriving tourism sector'

The mayor also announced two other tourism-focused initiatives: the opening of a new application cycle for tourism tax allocations and the creation of a tourism, arts and culture position at City Hall.

The city typically can expect to generate approximately $12 million a year in tourism tax revenue in a nonpandemic year. Of that, more than two-thirds is required to be spent on various preexisting responsibilities, particularly debt on the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

The city annually provides funds directly to a dozen or more attractions, including Spirit Mountain, the Lake Superior Zoo, Great Lakes Aquarium and DECC. They will again be eligible to request funds through an online application system, opening Wednesday and continuing through Sept. 8.

Larson said she found the traditional way of handling requests to be "lacking," noting individual requests were often privately negotiated, presented to the mayor's office and sent to the council for support. The application process initiated during her tenure requires analysis of budgets, impacts on expected tourist numbers and a requirement to offer a free community day.

The council still must sign off on those expenditures, with a vote expected in October.

Additionally, Larson on Monday will ask the council to approve the addition of a staff member to "manage the relationships, outcomes and goals for tourism and the arts in our community." The position would be fully covered by the tourism tax fund and posted in the coming months.

"This position will run the annual tourism tax allocation requests and reporting process, serve as the point for all tourism marketing and attractions, work with the city of Duluth Public Arts Commission and non-city arts entities to advance shared goals, and increase and fully integrate the impact of our work across all of these areas," the mayor said.

Larson said she wanted to "move boldly into the tourism and hospitality space," arguing the city has long kept the industry at an arm's length "out of fear of disruption and discomfort."

"We are not a tourist town," she said. "We're a city with world-class destinations and attractions, which contribute to residential quality of life, which also has special meaning for people living outside of Duluth. We can reposition the story of this community in a way that brings these two groups closer together and also more clearly demonstrates the value a thriving tourism sector brings to our residents."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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