Firms give themselves solid marks for first year marketing Duluth

After a rocky start, representatives pointed to growing tourism tax revenues and increased hotel stays.

colorful holiday light display
Layers of lights seen during the Bentleyville Tour of Lights at Bayfront Festival Park on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — As the city’s tourism industry struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of outsiders took on a tough job.

Starting this year, the Edina-based public relations agency of Bellmont Partners in conjunction with Lawrence & Schiller, a marketing firm headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has assumed responsibility for promoting the city of Duluth as a tourist destination.

As was the case this year, Bellmont and its partner are slated to receive $1.8 million for their efforts in 2023. That’s nearly 15% of the $12.4 million in tourism taxes the city expects to collect next year from the local hospitality industry.

For decades, Visit Duluth, a local home-grown organization, had promoted the city as a travel destination, before Mayor Emily Larson decided to seek requests for proposals from other entities interested in taking on that task.

The idea of switching gears was controversial, to say the least.


“It was a disruptive thing at the time,” recalled Tony Bronson, director of business development for Grandma’s Restaurant Co. and president of the Canal Park Business Association.

“A lot of people, myself included, had a lot of questions beyond just the strategy of making that change, but the timing of doing it in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “So, it’s been comforting to see that both the mayor and our council have remained engaged in tracking how things are going.”

After an 18-month review, Larson recommended and the Duluth City Council agreed to replace Visit Duluth with a team of outside vendors deemed more competent and better suited to take the city’s tourism industry to the next level.

The idea of outsourcing the work at a time of economic upheaval also didn’t play well with some in the local tourism industry.

“We didn’t know what the world was going to look like at the end of this. And to now pump $1.8 million out of our local economy to South Dakota and Minneapolis at that time, it just seemed risky,” Bronson said.

He elaborated, saying, “It wasn’t a reflection of not trusting the talent of Bellmont or Lawrence & Schiller, it was more a timing question of: Is this the time we want to be doing something so disruptive.”

Earlier this week, members of Duluth’s new marketing team reported back to the City Council on the results of their efforts thus far.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

For the first nine months of this year, tourism tax collections are up 13.9% and the number of hotel rooms sold jumped 5.8% compared with the same period last year, said Laura Mitchell, vice president of marketing for Lawrence & Schiller. She noted hotel revenues climbed an even greater 13.8% but acknowledged inflation likely accounted for 8.2% of that growth.


“For a first year, I think it’s gone pretty well,” said Dan Hartman, executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. “They’ve been very helpful to us at the DECC, because while we have some relationships with Twin Cities media, clearly they have quite a bit more. So, they’ve helped us get stories placed in that much-harder-to-crack key market.”

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The ability of the marketing team to successfully pitch stories on a regional and national level has been one of the bright spots in their performance that has impressed 3rd District City Councilor Roz Randorf.

“So far, I’m pleased with what I’m seeing,” she said.

Vice President and 5th District City Councilor Janet Kennedy asked marketing team members to grade their performance in year one of their work for Duluth.

“I personally would give us a B,” Mitchell said. “You can’t knock it out of the park right off the bat, and there are things you know you don’t know until you get into something.”

“But I do think, from the feedback we’ve heard from the industry and from visitors that the new brand was well received, the angles we’re providing to journalists are being well received. We’re getting strong visitation to the city and have been hearing great things from industry members. So, in that sense, I think we were successful,” she said.

“I agree,” said Megan Anderson, account director for Bellmont Partners. “There’s always room for improvement, and I think this first year was spent building a lot of the foundational elements. So, I think we’re really poised for success in 2023.”

Kennedy asked city staff, “Did this organization meet our expectations? Did we get our money’s worth?”


“Yes,” Economic Developer Tricia Hobbs responded. “I do think we spent a good deal of time with both entities talking about what we were going to do differently, which means a lot to me and has a really great impact, because it’s not just like saying, ‘We’re crushing it all the time.’”

Hobbs went on to say: “We’re acknowledging the spaces and the things we can improve upon. And we’re making a plan to do that. So, with all that in mind and again the really strong metrics we saw, I’d say the city has definitely seen a great return on its investment.”

About two-thirds of the marketing team’s total budget is dedicated to media buys, and Randorf inquired where some of that money goes.

“Back in the old days, when you’d buy media, it was commissionable, meaning a company would get commissions. Do you get a commission on this — 15%?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mitchell responded. “But I would clarify that within the commission, the reporting is provided, as well as all the strategy and market research and access to any of the comparison tools for different markets. I’m not a media buyer, so I’m probably not doing it justice. But it includes all those things.”

Randorf said she would still like to see a further breakdown of those expenses.

Daniele Villa was named Visit Duluth’s new executive director in March, and in its scaled-back role, he said the organization has helped bring 75 conventions, meetings or sports events to Duluth. And those gatherings led to the sale of more than 22,400 hotel rooms, producing an economic impact of more than $3.6 million, based on average daily rate data provided by Smith Travel Research. Villa called the figure “very conservative,” noting that it captures only the costs of lodging, not all the incidentals, such as food, drink, recreation and travel expenses.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

With the help of $650,000 in tourism tax support, Visit Duluth also opened a Canal Park visitor center in late April that has drawn more than 12,500 tourists, or a daily average of 74 people.

“I believe we’re just scratching the surface,” said Villa, predicting bigger visitor numbers to come in 2023.

The organization now has a staff of five, with two of those jobs being part-time positions.

Kennedy asked how Visit Duluth was performing in its reconfigured form and requested that Villa assign it a grade.

Villa said he would probably give the organization a B+, but deferred judgment to Visit Duluth’s board of directors.

Karen Pionk, who serves on the board as general manager of the Sheraton Duluth Hotel said, “I would completely support a B+, maybe bordering on an A-.”

She said Daniele faced many challenges when assumed his leadership role at Visit Duluth.

“He came into having to build a new organization and a new structure, which he’s done with enthusiasm, excitement and a lot of accountability. I’ve served on the board for many years, and he tore the budget apart, presented to us forecasts and different ways to use the revenues and finances that have been entrusted to him,” Pionk said.

“We’re turning in the right direction, and partnering with our marketing arm is really helping us. So, the fruits of the labor will come,” she said.

Police consider it an isolated incident as both parties are known to each other.

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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