During the past five decades, Duluth has increasingly become a tourist destination, especially for people who reside in Midwest metropolitan centers such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. Tall ship festivals, air shows, marathons and outdoor concerts – along with recreational opportunities including alpine and cross country skiing, swimming and sailing – have attracted visitors like a magnet.
The growth of mountain biking trails is expected to be the next boon for tourism, which in 2015 made an economic impact of nearly $1 billion, according to a research study released last November by Visit Duluth, the city’s destination marketing group.
“Minnesota is one of the most bike-friendly states in the country. Duluth has world-class mountain bike trails. We have a designation as a gold-level ride center from the International Mountain Bike Association. There are only five other cities in the world that have that designation.” said Dave Grandmaison, manager of The Duluth Experience, a local company that promotes the city by offering guided adventures.
Last month, he marketed the city and its trail system to a large potential audience in Europe. Grandmaison staffed Duluth’s exhibit at two major travel conventions, one in Utrech, Netherlands, and the other in Ghent, Belgium.
“These are specific tourism fairs that are hyperfocused on people looking for biking and hiking opportunities around the world,” he said. “These are not people who are looking for a beach-type experience. These are people who want to go mountain biking or road biking. That’s the audience we want to reach because that’s our product.”
The shows are aimed at consumers and include many large exhibits, some sponsored by tourism oriented countries such as Switzerland.
“There are be thousands of people at these shows. They’re very big,” said Grandmaison, who also attended the Netherlands event in 2015. He noted there’s only a minimal language barrier, as most people speak English in addition to their native tongues.
Marketing in Europe is nothing new for Visit Duluth. The group has purchased a booth at travel events for several years now, usually staffing it with overseas staff. That said, “It’s much more effective to have a local there to talk about what we have,” Grandmaison said.
He certainly has the necessary background. The Duluth Experience has been promoting Duluth’s history, sights and local adventures since 2013, when Grandmaison and co-founder Paul Helstrom decided to become professional ambassadors for the city. Company tours take visitors to workshops, through breweries, along bike trails – even paddling kayaks.
“We make it really easy for people to have a good time,” he said. And this region makes it easy for him to sell, Grandmaison explained, because so many outdoor attributes are available for Europeans to explore. He noted they tend to take longer vacations than Americans and like to keep their days filled. If they tire of hiking and riding the trails, “they can add kayaking, visit the BWCA, Isle Royale, Voyageurs National Park, the Apostle Islands, Bayfield. That’s a huge benefit. It stands out,” he said.
The February trip proved particularly beneficial because Duluth was mentioned in advance in a show preview published by a Belgian newspaper. It also was included in a television commercial.
“There were really good crowds and I saw a lot of interest. We saw a nice uptick in people visiting our web site after the shows as well. It certainly validates Duluth as a viable destination,” Grandmaison said after his return. He distributed printed information about mountain biking on the Duluth Traverse, promoting a seven-day package for $2,200 per person that includes accommodations, airport transportation, bikes and helmets. “People asked questions about how to get here, about our facilities and what sort of bikes we have available. I was focused on mountain biking but many were also looking for touring biking options. I talked about the Superior Hiking Trail and the opportunities for trail running. Even if it was not the target demographic, we provided them with information about Duluth.”
Grandmaison also visited with travel journalists. Several, he said, expressed an interest in visiting Duluth to profile the city.
“I’ll probably go back in two years and do it again. I’m curious to see if we get some web bookings. The fact that people are getting to know about Duluth is encouraging,” he said.