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Feeling superior in Duluth

Photo by Dennis O’Hara

Imagine a place where stress slips away. Do you see a tropical island? A mountain retreat? A desert oasis? Duluth, Minn.?

Ah yes. Just ask residents of the Twin Cities, who have been making Duluth their No. 1 weekend getaway for years. They’ll tell you the city of 86,000 is surprisingly soothing.

Eric Ewald, partner in the St. Paul association management firm Ewald Consulting, is a good example. Since childhood, he has regularly made the two-hour drive up Interstate 35. Even after all those trips, the minute he sees Duluth, he relaxes.

“My blood pressure is not high, but if it was, it would go down just by driving into Duluth,” said Ewald. “You crest the hill, driving on I-35, and the city and the lake lay out before you.”

Lake Superior stretches to the horizon, living up to its nickname “the Inland Sea.” Downtown Duluth stands by its shores. Giant ships slip beneath the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge and pass into the Duluth Harbor Basin through a narrow shipping canal dug by hand by residents long ago.

Tourists and locals stroll paths that parallel the harbor and lake’s edges.

More than weekend getaway

Many of the features that appeal to tourists on weekend trips appeal to meeting goers at conferences and meetings.

Duluth is walkable and compact, with everything a meeting attendee needs within a few blocks: a convention complex on the waterfront, 1,300 hotel rooms, an aquarium, a historic depot and rail museum, a sightseeing cruise line, 50 restaurants and an entertainment district. A system of skywalks makes walks short and comfortable year round.

The combination of convenience, lakefront location and attractions convinced Ewald to move the summer conference of the Economic Development Association of Minnesota (EDAM) to Duluth. By shifting from a resort to Duluth, the conference got better room rates, had higher attendance and scheduled more time for education.

“We felt Duluth would provide the best of two worlds,” Ewald said. “Being a fair-sized city, it had a number of assets we could draw upon for our program, and it was a quick drive up the highway from the Twin Cities. Still, it is a neat destination, so we didn’t lose that  ‘Hey, it is a summer conference’ component.”

Lake’s magnetism

The city’s layout says a lot about Lake Superior’s magnetism. Long and narrow, Duluth borders the lake for 26 miles, so naturally the lake becomes a part of every visit.

Even the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) is on the water, and a number of its venues abut the Duluth Harbor Basin.

“The DECC’s location is a tremendous part of what we sell,” said Anna Tanski, director of sales for Visit Duluth. “Two steps out the door, there is the water.”

DECC began 40 years ago as an arena and an auditorium. “It has evolved into a multipurpose facility that’s been added onto in phases,” said Tanski. The result is the second-largest convention facility in the state.

There are two arenas, the original DECC arena and the Amsoil Arena, which opened 18 months ago. Each seats some 8,000 spectators, but the new arena meets standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Silver level) and current ADA requirements.

DECC also includes two convention centers. The two-level Harborside Convention Center is noted for a 12,000-square-foot ballroom overlooking the bay; it also has about 6,000 square feet of meeting space in up to five rooms on its first level.

The larger Cityside Convention Center has on its first level a 15,000-square-foot exhibit hall and on its second-level, a 26,000-square-foot ballroom and other meeting spaces.

Additional exhibit space includes the 50,000- square-foot Pioneer Hall and the 8,000-square-foot Paulucci Hall, which links the DECC Arena with the 2,221-seat Symphony Hall Auditorium.

Taking a cruise on Lake Superior is as easy as slipping out of the DECC and onto one of the Vista Fleet’s two boats, moored next to the convention center.

Two nearby venues

The complex is also walking distance from the Great Lakes Aquarium and the historic Union Depot. Both are off-site venues, and many organizations find ways to incorporate both into a conference agenda. For example, when the American Quaternary Association met in Duluth in late June, it had its opening reception at the aquarium and its annual banquet at the depot.

Royal blue and red, the acquarium’s modern angles and lines seem to mimic those of the tankers and other ships that sail past.

“We’re on Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, so there is a lot of interest in freshwater,” said Jack LaVoy, aquarium executive director. “It was the world’s first freshwater aquarium. Our mission is to explore the connection to Lake Superior and, through it, the waters of the world. It is an important story to tell that no one else was telling.”

The aquarium’s location, coupled with its exhibits — six new ones in just under five years — explain the aquarium’s popularity for after-hours events.

Although some saltwater life such as jellyfish are displayed here, the Great Lakes’ play the biggest role, made clear by a large tank that is home to sturgeon and catfish the size of sharks.

The aquarium’s neighbors include Bayfront Festival Park, where music festivals and other events are held, and, a few blocks away, an industrial zone-turned-entertainment district, Canal Park, with its 20 restaurants and bars, hotels and shops.