• Duluth Makes Big Waves as a Destination to Meet & Play

    FROM THE Summer 2015 ISSUE
  • Duluth Makes Big Waves as a Destination to Meet & Play

    FROM THE Summer 2015 ISSUE
  • Duluth Makes Big Waves as a Destination to Meet & Play

    FROM THE Summer 2015 ISSUE
  • Duluth Makes Big Waves as a Destination to Meet & Play

    FROM THE Summer 2015 ISSUE
  • Duluth Makes Big Waves as a Destination to Meet & Play

    FROM THE Summer 2015 ISSUE

"[Planners and attendees] often refer to us as a hidden gem,” says Julie Johnson Atkinson, senior sales manager of Visit Duluth. But word is getting out about Duluth. Its biggest spectacle, Lake Superior, inspires, relaxes and brings people together, something that the people of Duluth capitalize on. And there’s an undeniable sense of community, especially when it comes to planning a meeting or event. Restaurants, venues, caterers, hotels and planners work together to make it work—whatever it is. “We get a lot of good feedback from people that things really gel here,” says Johnson Atkinson. Between its rich history, lake culture, natural surroundings and thriving local businesses, Duluth is a place that won’t stay secret for long.

Historical Venues

At the center of the mining industry in northeastern Minnesota in the early 1900s was Chester Congdon, an attorney for a major mining company who invested in low-grade iron, made a fortune and built a ravishing estate. Now, the Glensheen Historic Congdon Estate is the No. 1 historic house in Minnesota. “It might not seem like a big deal, but to put things into perspective, there are actually more historic homes in the United States than there are McDonalds,” says Jane Pederson, marketing manager. The 7-acre mansion reflects the Arts-and-Craft movement and the majority of its furnishings and interior designs are original. “[Chester and his wife Clara] did not skimp on quality. They always had the best of the best,” says Pederson. Paintings and artifacts that Chester collected on his world travels are still on display today.

Glensheen was donated to the University of Minnesota Duluth and has been a public entity for over 35 years; it has become a favorite spot for events. “Even though you’re in a 100-year-old mansion, you still have technology for today,” says Pederson, who cites a full sound system, large-screen monitors, Wi-Fi, projectors and mobile carts. The Winter Garden holds 120 for a dinner; the Billiards Room features the original cover to serve food buffet- style; the Amusement Room can be set up for a social gathering with cocktail tables or lecture-style for 70; and the formal dining room seats 20 at the Congdon’s original dining room table. Outside, tents can be set up to accommodate 300 in the beautiful garden backdrop. The terrace holds up to 70 and is just 100 yards from Lake Superior, where guests can end the night with a bonfire. Touring the first and second floors is encouraged during events, and guides are stationed throughout to answer questions.

Before it was a restaurant, bar and event center, Clyde Iron Works manufactured heavy equipment that revolutionized the logging industry and was used in the construction of projects around the world, including the Panama Canal and Empire State Building; the company opened in 1889 and was active for more than a century before closing in 2003. In 2010, Clyde Iron Works reopened in its new capacity. “It’s such a cool industrial building. ... It can really be as its shell or can be dressed up with a little bit of décor,” says Melissa Compton, events manager, who asserts both large and small groups can be accommodated comfortably.

Clyde’s main floor—featuring several windows and wood-top tables—can hold anywhere from 20-100 with seating for 60 or more if needed. A roomy and versatile mezzanine is ideal for smaller gatherings looking for a little bit of quiet, and comes equipped with a stage, lighting and sound equipment. The event center, located in what was once a machine shop, features two balconies (one of which boasts original flooring)—connected by a catwalk— and audio-visual options like a 20-foot-by-16-foot projection screen, PA system, wireless microphones and speakers. With opposing views of the harbor and hillside, the event center’s capacity is 500 people on both levels or 300 on the main floor (auditorium or classroom setups are options). The entire restaurant can be rented out as well; combined with the event center, Clyde can hold 1,200 people standing in its 36,000 square feet of total space. Situated in the up-and-coming Lincoln Park, Clyde boasts plenty of free parking. Menu options are flexible for banquets, whether it’s serving meals family style or catering to food preferences.

The Lake

“Everyone will claim they have the best view, but we literally are on the water and you can’t beat that,” says Sarah Steinbach, vice presi- dent of Vista Fleet. The Vista Star and Vista Queen, both of which have climate-controlled enclosed decks and an observation deck, cruise Lake Superior May through October in the midst of harbor activity; a popular dinner cruise route goes up to the Wisconsin entry point and back under the Aerial Lift Bridge. The Vista Queen is the smaller of the two and better suited for intimate gatherings; the enclosed deck can accommodate 50 cocktail-style, 36 seated and 45 classroom-style. The Vista Star has two enclosed decks and clients have the option to rent both: the first level allows for 70-80 seated, the second level has room for 48-66 seated or 80 classroom-style. Steinbach stresses the flexibility of accommodating each groups’ needs while still adhering to coast guard restrictions: “Within reason, we can ultimately do what someone dreams up.” In cases where the weather doesn’t cooperate, Steinbach works with preferred caterers, who have their own physical space, or other venues in town to relocate.

Not only does the Great Lakes Aquarium overlook Lake Superior on the shores of the Duluth harbor, but it also strives to teach guests a thing or two about fresh water. “Much of our facility is actually focused on interpreting habitats and life around the Great Lakes,” says Jack LaVoy, executive director. Holding daytime events was a challenge without a large space away from the exhibition floor, but the new Discovery Center, slated to open in May, has the capacity to accommodate 120 people in its 2,500-foot remodeled facility. The Discovery Center has three classrooms named after three forms of green energy (Wind, Water, Sun) with accordion walls that can be pulled back to form one room. But that’s not the only green thing about the venue: In the past two years in partnership with the Minnesota Power Foundation, Great Lakes Aquarium has decreased its energy by about 25 percent by converting to LED lighting and more. With the ability for interactive video conferencing, clients can use speakers who are off-site and also have the option to include time to explore the exhibits at a reduced rate.

Explore the Outdoors Outside magazine named Duluth the No. 1 Best Town Ever in 2014 for its wooded trails, parkland, trout streams, the Duluth Traverse (which when complete in 2017 will be among the longest urban mountain-bike trails in the world) and more. But Jake Boyce, co-owner and CEO of Day Tripper of Duluth, always knew Duluth to be a hub for outdoor activity. “Our goal is to get people outside and try different things. ... It’s really fun to share a passion for the outdoors with our guests.” Whether it’s kayaking or paddleboarding on Lake Superior, fat tire biking in winter, mountain biking or hiking through the countless trails, tour guides talk through the cultural, historical and natural elements that make Duluth special while assisting clients at all skill levels. For out-of-town groups, exploring the great outdoors is especially easy as Day Tripper provides all the gear and lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. Accommodating larger groups is no problem; the outdoor guiding service took 40 people on a guided kayak tour, and there’s an option to split groups up in different activities. “Duluth has so much to offer in all seasons, there’s absolutely no reason to stay in a hotel or conference center,” says Boyce.

The Duluth Experience does just as its name suggests. Besides its popular brewery tours and history tours, the company takes guests on outdoor adventures. The guides at the Duluth Experience not only teach groups the mechanics of the sport at hand, “We talk a lot about the history of Duluth, the geology and ecology of the north shore. It’s a very content-rich experience,” says David Grandmaison, co-owner and CEO. Kayaking tours traverse the Duluth harbor and up the St. Louis River and on top of mountain biking tours, two road bike options are available: one goes halfway to Two Harbors and the other bikes 29 miles into Two Harbors and ends with a train ride on the scenic railroad back into town. Like Day Tripper, lunch and equipment are included in the price. This year, the touring company is partnering with Vertical Endeavors for climbing trips and Swiftwater Adventures for whitewater rafting. “We’re not limited to any particular activities,” says Grandmaison of the ability to customize tours based on the needs of each group—whether it’s chartering a larger bus or creating a walking tour for a group. The Duluth Experience has worked with groups as large as 55-90.

Go Big

“If chances are that something really fun is happening in Duluth, it’s gonna be at the DECC [Duluth Entertainment Convention Center],” says Sue Ellen Moore, director of sales, who goes on to say the DECC hosts over 600 events a year. The DECC works closely with Visit Duluth to make the community aware of a large convention in town  (Grandma’s Marathon, for example, sees 20-30,000 people annually). “You hopefully will feel like a big fish in a little pond,” says Moore. In-house expo services and in-house catering make holding a meeting or convention at the DECC streamlined, and with a designated meeting planner who coordinates those services means clients only receive one invoice. With two conference centers (one that faces the city, the other the harbor), 150,000 square feet of exhibit space and the AMSOIL arena, the DECC is committed to environmental stewardship and employs practices like composting, purchasing biodegradable/recyclable products, donating surplus food and taking steps to reduce energy use.

If you’ve been to Duluth, you’ve heard of Grandma’s. Grandma’s Restaurant Company, established in 1976, can do it all—from hosting a lunch reservation for two people or a 1,000-person concert. Grandma’s Sports Garden & Event Center can be rented out in full for 800 or by room: The Bayview Room seats 200 and the Armchair Quarterback Lounge seats 72. Along with Grandma’s access to a variety of venues (like Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, Little Angie’s Cantina, Adventure Zone Family Fun Center and any of the Grandma’s Saloon and Grills), the restaurant company can make room arrangements with its Canal Park hotel partners. A staple in Duluth’s event community, Grandma’s is a strategic partner for a number of Duluth’s signature events like Tall Ships Duluth, the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo and Bentleyville Tour of Lights, among others—proving to be a microcosm of all that Duluth has to offer.


Beyond its vast beauty, Lake Superior is a plentiful source of clean, fresh water that’s well-suited to brewing since it contains very little dissolved minerals.

Emily and Joel Vikre saw value in the freshwater lake as a resource for distilling spirits. “We make made-from-scratch distilled spirits [gin, unaged aquavit, vodka] that are inspired by the nature and the culture of the Lake Superior watershed and the north woods,” says Emily. Located in the heart of Canal Park, Vikre’s open space, furnished with a hand-made bar and leather couch seating area along with views of the two copper stills, is well suited for meeting over a cocktail and has been known to rent out to private parties. The Duluth Experience takes microbrew fans behind the scenes on its brewery tours to learn how beer is made and meet the brewers of local brewing companies like Lake Superior, Fitgers Brewhouse, Bent Paddle, Thirsty Pagan and Vikre; all are available Thursday to Saturday.

The CDC defines close contact as within six feet or less, for 15 minutes or more with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. At gatherings of many kinds, contact tracing is used to trace the people that someone has come into contact with, before they learn that they have tested positive. This allows the people that the sick person came into contact with to be aware of the situation, and to make health-informed choices. 


With restrictions across the country in a state of constant flux, not everyone is ready to jump back into meeting in person. While some planners are eager to get back to “normal,” the long-term adjustment to new protocols and potential risks make some hesitant to gather.

While wearing masks and social distancing can help keep attendees safe, intentional design choices—such as including natureinspired elements and materials and plenty of plants—can also help calm attendees.


Take note of these seven pros who are making their mark in the meetings and events industry. 

Jolene Ihle, Founder
Lifetime Achievement 

“I was 10 years old when I received my Muscular Dystrophy Carnival Kit in the mail. The box was filled with cool ideas and colorful materials to  support fundraising efforts. I was completely enthralled with the event planning process. … This experience was my jumpstart into events and I was hooked.”