Anyone who has ever participated in a sight-seeing tour knows the drill. You meet at a certain point and follow a guide. You lean in to decipher what’s being said and after two hours you say your ‘thank you’ and head out to grab a bite to eat, thinking all along you could have easily gained more knowledge from a guide book.
A Duluth start-up is trying to improve that model while shining a spotlight on the city. ‘The Duluth Experience’ is a locally owned and operated tour company that focuses on experiential tourism. With the slogan “More than a tour…it’s an experience!” it aims to create unique, high quality, educational visitor experiences.
“Our mission is to introduce our guest to the people, places, adventures and stories that make Duluth and the North Shore such an interesting place to be,” said Dave Grandmaison, co-founder and CEO of the firm.
The Duluth Experience does that by using a three-pronged service consisting of brewery tours, history tours and adventure tours.
Most popular, by far, are the brewery tours. Several times a week, guides take visitors behind-the-scenes of the booming North Shore craft beer movement. Guests may tour various local breweries, sample the products and meet the brewers. Transportation, down-to-earth narration and dinner at a locally owned restaurant are included. Five different brewery tours are offered, taking place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The cost per person is $79.
The history bus program focuses on the Twin Ports’ history and features an on-board slide show that presents images of Duluth’s historic hot-spots that have all but disappeared from the landscape. An extended version of this tour includes admission to prominent historic sites. A two-hour walking tour is also available.
Tours of the adventure program include kayaking, mountain biking, road biking and, newly added this year, rock climbing. The sessions are designed to include visitors with lower levels of practice. Said Grandmaison, “We’re trying to get people out to try something different, something they may have never done before and experience Duluth in a different sort of way.” Cost for the history and adventure tours range anywhere from $29 to $135 per person.
While regular tours are typically held with eight to 13 participants, The Duluth Experience is also able to accommodate larger groups for special or corporate events and private parties. Customized tours can include a combination of all services the company offers. The largest-to-date gig came up in July, when Grandmaison led 90 people on a brewery tour. Other services the company offers include workshops such as “wilderness medicine” and “fall colors photography.”
The Duluth Experience is a little over two years old but has managed to establish a reputation of a company that is professional, fun and passionate about the city.
“Essentially, we look at ourselves as ambassadors for Duluth,” states Grandmaison, who describes himself as a fourth generation Duluthian.
It was during his eight years spent working as a wildlife biologist in Arizona that Grandmaison became familiar with the concept of touring brewing companies. A home brewer and beer lover himself, he was surprised to find a lack thereof upon his return to Duluth in 2012, despite the fact that microbreweries were popping up all over the area. Together with his cousin and co-founder, Paul Helstrom, he researched the subject, prepared a cost analysis and found that it was a feasible business model, knowing that they would want to include other tour options that show what makes Duluth such a great place.
They founded the company in February 2013, bought a bus in May and ran the first official tour, after some practice runs with family and friends, on July 18, 2013.
Helstrom and Grandmaison couldn’t have picked a better time. Duluth is a growing hub for outdoor adventure tourism. Bike trails are being built around town and financial investments are going into the development of the St. Louis River area to create a world-class hiking-, biking- and paddling destination.
The Duluth Experience takes pride in working with a variety of locally owned businesses. Each brewery tour includes dinner at a local restaurant. Bike rentals are carried out at Continental Bike and rock climbing experiences are facilitated in collaboration with Canal Park’s ‘Vertical Endeavors.’ Grandmaison has also established a network of history-related attractions such as the Glensheen Mansion, the William A. Irvin iron ore ship and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.
“Because we put so much effort into creating our unique experiences, our guests have been super supportive in terms of giving us great reviews online,” Grandmaison said in reference to the 2015 certificate of excellence, which was awarded to his company by TripAdvisor. The online and word-of-mouth advertising is highly beneficial for the start-up since it lacks a big marketing budget. “We do a lot of social media and blogging to create a valuable information stream to explore.”
The Duluth Experience’s staff has grown to 12 part-time guides and drivers as the number of booked tours and special customized events have doubled.
This being the third summer of running brewery tours, The Duluth Experience has gained a lot of recognition for that particular offer. In fact, it won Growler Magazine’s “Best Minnesota Brewery Tour” award. However, Grandmaison feels it is now time to shine the spotlight on the history and adventure tours.
Being a member of the destination marketing organization Visit Duluth can only be beneficial for that goal. Gene Shaw, director of public relations at Visit Duluth, said the tour company “gives visitors another reason to come to Duluth.” Regarding the company’s prospects, he states: “Their business will continue to be successful if they keep fine tuning what they do and keep looking for new opportunities. Working with them has been great. Their company is a good addition to the visitor’s experience when they come to Duluth”.
With that sentiment, Grandmaison and his team share and keep adding to an extensive list of tour, clinic and work shop ideas, especially those that will expand the program during the slow winter months. The company’s goal is to become the definitive resource for things to do in Duluth, for people that live here, visit or are on a business trip.
The commonality among all tours is the creation of a fun and educational experience and the promotion of Duluth.
“We incorporate the information and history of Duluth into all of our tours, whether it’s the things to do here, the stories that helped Duluth create what it is or the great local businesses that are in town. We are like boosters, the cheerleaders of Duluth,” he said.
For more information on the tours available or to book tickets, visit www.theduluthexperience.com or call (218) 464-6337.