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Feeling superior in Duluth


Courtesy Visit Duluth

All about the rails

Also within a short walk of the DECC is Duluth’s historic Union Depot, where three venues under one roof can be used separately or in tandem.

An evening at the French Norman-style depot can begin with a reception in the Great Hall. Ken Buehler, who manages the depot and its railroad-related entities, describes the hall as “one of the great rooms in this part of Minnesota, if not the entire state.”

After a reception, a group can move downstairs to the railroad museum on the lower level where rail passengers once boarded. The tracks are under roof now, and upon them are displayed much of the museum’s collection.

To top off an event or to entertain for an entire evening, groups can climb aboard the North Shore Scenic Railroad, an excursion train that takes passengers on 20-minute- to two-hour-long rides along the lake, through woods and villages north of Duluth.

Part of the ride, near Duluth, brushes so close to the lake that “on windy days, we wash the side of the train,” said Buehler.

For small and special occasions, the railroad, run mainly by a loyal team of volunteers, will pull out a 1916 Northland Pullman car.

The railroad’s board must approve use of the railcar, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Four to five events are held upon it each year, said Buehler. “It comes out every now and then for the right event.”

No matter the size or type of event, a train, Buehler said, is a natural setting for networking.

“The nice thing about the train ride is that the seating is long and narrow so people naturally break into small groups,” he said.

Historic estate on lake
For those who want to stay near the lake but move a bit beyond downtown, the historic Glensheen estate offers parts of its mansion, gardens and grounds for off-site events.

Chester Congdon was one of the wealthiest men in Minnesota, using part of a fortune built from iron ore mining and land speculation to build for his wife, Clara, and their children a mansion in a then-remote area on the lake.

No one but Congdons has ever lived in the home; it was willed to the University of Minnesota, which opened it to the public 33 years ago. Because it was always in family hands, the home never lost its original furnishings and decor.

Tours there are a window into life in the early 1900s. Little details, like chandeliers that are half electric, half gas (a nod to the newness and uncertainty of electricity) make it a “natural place to see what was happening at the turn of the century,” said Lori Melton, marketing director.

The dining room of the home can be used for groups of 30 or so; all events held at the estate include a tour. Just as the Congdon family did long ago, the university tests different plants in the lake environment, making the estate a draw for gardening groups.

Cold doesn’t deter
Of all states, Minnesota might be most closely tied to the word “brrr,” but a reputation for extreme winters doesn’t seem to dampen convention business in Duluth, where February  and October are tied as second-busiest month for meetings. “Our No. 1 convention month is April,” said Tanski.

The area’s reasonable rates are a draw for associations, and many are also benefiting from Duluth’s ability to draw crowds.

The International Association for Great Lakes Research had a successful conference in Duluth in May 2011. It was the first time that the association had not met on a college campus. Instead, the group used the DECC and five downtown hotels.

Randall Hicks, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and conference co-chair, expected 500 to 600 attendees. The conference drew 650, and the association made money.

Among the features attendees liked were free hotel shuttles, free downtown parking and walkability. In a number of the larger cities where the group had met, attendees were paying large sums for cab fares and parking fees. They faced neither in Duluth.

EDAM, too, saw a rise in attendance for its summer conference there. “Our attendance went up 70 percent,” said Ewald. “We’ve had 85-90 people in the past; this year, we had 165. I though this [Duluth] would be a good move.”

Such a good move that EDAM will probably be making the trek up Interstate 35 again.

“While we were there, we asked Visit Duluth if they could start looking at dates for the next two years,” said Ewald. “We had some very happy attendees.”