During an industry update hosted online by Visit Duluth on Thursday morning, several business owners in Duluth's tourism industry spoke against Mayor Emily Larson's plan to hire a Minneapolis public relations firm for the city's marketing and promotional responsibilities.
“This seems to be a continuation of something that we’ve seen over many years, and not just from this administration, of decisions that are getting made that affect the hospitality industry,” said Tony Bronson, director of business development at Grandma's Restaurant Co. and president of the Duluth Local Restaurant Association.
“The common thread that runs, a lot of times, seems to be that there’s no reach-out to owners, operators or business associations," he said. "Any of the people who are going to be most directly impacted by the decisions that are getting made seem to be the ones who aren’t at the table, don’t have a voice in the process.”
Bronson said he has struggled to find anyone in the Duluth Local Restaurant Association who was contacted by the City Council for feedback about Visit Duluth's performance as a marketing agency, or about the process of hiring a new firm for those marketing needs. He requested that the city explain what the benefits of this change would be to local members of the tourism industry.
Larson announced on Tuesday her proposal to hire Minneapolis-based Bellmont Partners for marketing and promotions with a $1.8 million budget for 2022. Visit Duluth, which has been the city's promoter since 1935, would be offered a $400,000 contract for sales and event promotion.
Anna Tanski, Visit Duluth's president and chief executive officer, said the contract would likely cut the organization's full-time staff from seven positions to three. Her position, plus the organization's communications and marketing positions, would be eliminated. The budget also does not provide funds for a visitor center or a staff person to run the center, nor would it cover technology, business equipment or support services.
In an interview Wednesday, Larson told the News Tribune the decision was made to "grow and expand, to find new audiences and new generations of people, to encourage and find ways to go from one-night and two-night stays to three- and four-night stays."
Jason Vincent, owner of the Boat Club Restaurant and Vanilla Bean restaurants, and a member of Visit Duluth's board of directors' executive committee, described Larson's statements Wednesday to the News Tribune as "disappointing and tone deaf."
Vincent said Visit Duluth has accomplished growth in tourism numbers, diversity, occupancy and tax revenues.
“There is no lag in those numbers," Vincent said. "They continue to surpass any expectation that the city has given us and it just was incredibly disappointing as someone who has worked so hard as part of this organization."
Several people who spoke Thursday morning via Zoom raised concerns that the change in structure to the marketing process could leave just one person from Duluth's city administration in charge of the entire message for tourism. Tanski said the details of that structure are still unclear, but she believes that would be the case.
“It seems like this is just another instance of City Hall seeming to know better than everybody else,” Bronson said of the situation.
Tanski discussed several reasons she believes Visit Duluth is still the most capable organization for the job: her staff's institutional knowledge, local connections to the industry, and the fact that Visit Duluth is a nonprofit organization that contracts with local agencies. She also said there is value in having the visitor center and local people available to answer visitors' questions via phone and email.
Lindsay Kern of Kern & Kompany, who is also on the executive committee of Visit Duluth's board, said the organization has yet to hear what specific concerns Larson or the councilors have about Visit Duluth.
“For a new organization, such as Bellmont, to be able to improve upon something, I think it’s imperative that they have awareness of what is lacking," Kern said. "We have asked that question and have not received a specific response to what those improvements need to be.”
In an email to city councilors sent Thursday afternoon, Larson stated allocating millions of dollars in public funds without a competitive process was wrong, and Visit Duluth was notified of the plans to go to a request for proposals five months before the city went public with its intent.
"(P)rofessionalizing and de-personalizing the allocation process through an RFP sets an important emotional distance by which professional determinations get reviewed, valued on their merits and compared with other vendors, rather than relying solely on channels of informality or personal relationship," Larson wrote in the email.
Visit Duluth is a membership-based organization, and Larson said the tourism industry is bigger than a private membership and should have access to the promotional and marketing opportunities made possible by public funds.
"In the past 18 months, many entities who are not members have shared that they do not feel served and supported by the member model and do not get access to publicly funded promotional opportunities as a result," Larson wrote. "Public funds should be accessible to all entities, not just the ones who pay to access."
The council is expected to discuss the decision Monday evening.