Can a Tour Find Success in a Smaller Destination?

How one business grew in a small market, by embracing culinary and authentic experiences, using savvy marketing, and getting creative. Here’s their story.

Think tours and sightseeing, and the obvious destinations – New York, Paris, Rome – come to mind. But the rapid growth of tours and activities has seen new tour businesses emerge in many locales that don’t come right to mind for travel and tourism. But, it’s interesting that the broader industry trends are just as true in smaller locales. This speaks to a fundamental transformation in how everyone is traveling. From the fashionista in Milan to the business traveler in the Midwest of America, people are seeking authenticity.

In Duluth Minnesota, Dave Grandmaison is embracing the new reality. After moving back to his hometown from Arizona, Grandma

ison realized the city needed a great tour company to showcase what it had to offer. “I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t anyone taking this type of approach to moving guests around the city to explore and get off the beaten path,” he says. In 2013, along with a few other co-founders, he started the Duluth Experience. Starting a tour company is always a risk, but especially in a spot that isn’t known for tourism. They knew they would have to be creative and embrace the authentic experience to succeed.

There weren’t very many options for travelers at the time, so they decided to offer everything: brewery tours, walking tours, adventure tours, city tours, history tours, kayak tours, and mountain/road bike tours. At first, that might seem like too many options. However, the harsh winters and cyclical nature of the tourist season there drove a need for a wide variety of tours for the summer and winter months

Starting a tour in a smaller city also means being flexible. One of the smartest things that Grandmaison did was make all of the tours modular, meaning you can combine any of the various tours. Someone can start with a bicycle tour of the city and end with a tour and tasting of local craft breweries. This has led to a dramatic increase in their private and corporate bookings.

“I never thought I’d be starting – let alone running – a business like The Duluth Experience,” Grandmaison recalls. “It happened organically and with a willingness to take a few risks. Success, in my mind, is a process… not an endpoint. It’s something you work towards. I work towards it every day.”

Food Matters

The culinary offerings of tours have become perhaps the most important aspect of creating a great tour. This is true for almost every operator in the world. Even if you’re handing out a bottle of water, food and drink matters a lot to travelers and is something they will remember – whether it’s good or bad.

“The food and beverage aspect of any kind of tour, whether it’s culinary focused or it’s just a piece of a bigger picture, it really helps to connect people,” Grandmaison says. “Duluth has a very vibrant scene of independent breweries. They make the beer with Lake Superior water which is one of the great water resources in the world. There’s a story we connect between a sense of place, the environment, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the city.”

Marketing Locally and Globally

Even though it’s considered one of the premier biking locations in the country, many biking enthusiasts in Europe have barely heard of Minnesota, never mind Duluth. They decided to market the Great Lake as an advertising draw for the city. By focusing on Lake Superior, something most people have heard of, they were able to get more international tourists. They also focused on regional travelers, specifically from the Twin Cities, enticing customers in their own backyard to grow their company.

Duluth will never be Paris, but the beauty is that it doesn’t need to be. Grandmaison and his partners have found success showcasing their passion for a beautiful corner of the country. Too often we focus on major destinations. We forget that operators around the world are building businesses that showcase the beauty and unique charms of their location. It’s fascinating, though unsurprising, that the things that travelers want are basically the same in Paris and Duluth: culinary, authenticity, and a unique experience. It also means that operators, no matter where they live, will have to step up to provide those experiences.

“The food and beverage aspect of any kind of tour, whether it’s culinary focused or it’s just a piece of a bigger picture, it really helps to connect people.”

Dave Grandmaison

Co-Founder & CEO , The Duluth Experience

Peter Gietl