This week a group of leaders in Duluth’s hospitality industry drafted a letter to the DECC and Visit Duluth Boards of Directors to share their concerns with the boards’ push to merge the DECC and Visit Duluth (VD). Both organizations are struggling due to the pandemic and members of the Board of Directors for both the DECC and Visit Duluth have been meeting to discuss the option of reducing costs by merging. The merger would consist of the DECC taking over the destination marketing for Duluth by absorbing the staff at Visit Duluth and assigning them this job. One Executive Director would be hired to oversee both the DECC and the Visit Duluth “arm”, and a transition team would be put in place to help this happen seamlessly, or so they say.
The discussions for this merger were initiated by Mayor Larson. A Working Group of both DECC and VD Board Members was formed and together they created a report suggesting this move would make both entities “more financially efficient together by combining similar missions of attracting visitors and conventions to Duluth, which, in turn, supports the local business community, like hotels, restaurants, shops, and attractions.”
Visit Duluth’s actual mission is: “The official destination marketing organization, exists to attract the maximum number of visitor dollars into Duluth’s economy. Visit Duluth establishes new initiatives to increase tourism, visitors, and conventions, and further enhance the awareness of the industry.” While conventions are certainly part of what they pitch, Visit Duluth also promotes many other aspects of the Duluth area.
The merger is poorly defined at this point with just broad ideas of how it will work, yet a vote was expected last week. In a recent DECC board meeting, Working Group member, and DECC and Visit Duluth Board Member, Karen Pionk, explained that a transition team will be tasked with working out the nitty-gritty details AFTER the merger is approved. Concerns by some board members have pushed the vote to December 30.
Of course, this merger raises major red flags for the hospitality industry, which their letter clearly cited and explained. (Read the full letter below) They include:
The hospitality group shared that the Working Groups report had a tone of excitement and opportunity, but the group feels that “the urgency of our present situation makes moving forward at such an accelerated pace both unwise and unnecessary. As our region faces the hard realities of a pandemic, full attention must be given to supporting area restaurants, lodging, attractions, and other hospitality businesses.”
- LACK OF PLANNING
“It would be a mistake to take on such unnecessary distractions without compelling reasons to do so. To date, no convincing rationale has been provided. We entirely agree there could be potential efficiencies in this proposed merger, but it’s important to note that this also has its limits. Moreover, given the range of priorities, needs, and concerns involved, too many questions remain.”
3: CONFLICT OF INTEREST
“Matter of conflict of interest is dismissed with no real discussion of this significant issue.” In the Working Groups Q & A document, the issue of conflict of interest was barely addressed, and not addressed in terms of the DECC competing with other businesses that provide the same services. “‘The Director of Sales will determine how to deploy account management to avoid any conflict of interest.’ This falls far short of any serious response. In fact, conflict of interest is a very real concern to many in our industry who provide the same services as the DECC. This matter alone – as only one example of several legitimate concerns – requires diligent, collaborative exploration before proceeding with the proposed merger.”
The hospitality group letter also asks for clarification on leadership post-merger, “Working Group report states that the merged organization is to ‘be led by an Executive Director as selected by the DECC Board of Director’. This describes a takeover, not a merger in which stakeholders have a fair and equitable voice in determining the very future of our tourism economy.”
The group did not ask the Mayor to abandon the idea of merging the DECC and Visit Duluth, but instead that “we allow ourselves the ample time and planning such a momentous decision deserves, and allow this community to catch up to the process.” They state, “We ask you to vote NO. Not to cancel out this process, but simply to create some breathing room. Enough to allow further study and careful consideration of the concerns surrounding the issue. Further, we urge that the Visit Duluth contract be extended for one year, and funded at the $1.5M the city has proposed for DMO funding for 2021.”
The letter was signed by several Pricipals, General Managers, and Presidents from prominent businesses like Grandma’s Organization, Suites Hotel, Econo Lodge, Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites, OMC Smokehouse, Duluth Grill, Corktown Deli and Brews, Pier B Resort Hotel, The Blackwoods Group, Radisson Hotel, Inn on Lake Superior, Downtown Duluth Inn, Days Inn Lakewalk, Edgewater Hotel and Water Park, Canal Park Lodge, Canal Park Brewing Company, Days Inn & Suites/Fairfield Inn & Suites Miller Hill Mall, Holiday Inn & Suites Downtown, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Duluth North, and Valentini’s Italian Restaurants.
In a letter dated December 7th, Mayor Larson replied, and true to form, she only waited two sentences to get snarky. (See images of full letter below)
After explaining that 2020 requires the city to be nimble, creative, efficient, forward-thinking, and innovative, she snarks “I don’t need to tell you that in the private sector – but I am surprised I need to explain that to be the case with public assets and investment in the tourism economy as well.”
Emily describes the hospitality industry’s letter as having a “tone of collective resistance to tourism efficiency”, yet resists addressing one single cited concern from the group’s letter in her response. Instead, implying that they don’t want the city to think big, take measured risks, garner community support, or have a vision “beyond the now”. If Emily took a minute to comprehend their letter, she might have realized they aren’t asking the merger to be stopped forever, they are only asking that a reasonable amount of time be taken in making this enormous decision that can and will impact their businesses.
As usual, the letter drones on with fluffy phrases and mock motivation trying to persuade the hospitality businesses that this shoot from the hip idea is the saving grace for Duluth. She says, “It is possible to change and adapt to get things right. Meeting this moment of pandemic and economic crisis compels us to be different, not rest on the past. It calls us to go big for what is possible, and not just go home to what we’ve always known. It requires that we step forward and not step away.” I hope someone cued the inspirational music to play behind that while you read it… because, as Emily continues, “This concept isn’t about abandoning the successes of the past, it’s about recognizing that this moment asks us to build upon it.”
Seems she pulled this from the well-known political reference guide “Gibberish to Avoid Addressing Constituent Concerns”. And while all of this is bad enough, Emily is not done degrading her supporters and some of the most prominent business people in Duluth. Instead of addressing their concerns about timing, planning, and most importantly the conflict of interest, she levels them with this, “In my experience, resistance comes when people don’t see themselves in what is coming next or they are afraid that changes will not benefit them. I can’t convince you that a streamlined, thoughtful, cohesive, efficient tourism organization modeled after many, many other successful merges across the county will be better for you. But you also can’t convince me that it won’t.”
Well, Emily, we can’t convince you that a good leader would take the time to acknowledge the concerns of her constituents, especially when they are major employers and the pots where the City collects its desperately needed tourism tax dollars, and that she would also engage the hospitality industry, invite them to meet with her and the Working Group making the decision to merge, and clearly address those concerns so one of Duluth’s biggest industries feels comfortable with this dramatic change. But you also can’t convince us that they don’t.
The hospitality industry isn’t alone in thinking this merger is happening too fast. DECC Board Member and former Duluth Mayor, Don Ness, was quoted in the News Tribune as saying that he is skeptical of this “rushed marriage”. He asked “What does it mean to take on this scope of responsibility? Take on destination marketing for the greater Duluth area?” and “Especially now, while we’re in crisis, we don’t have the capacity, I don’t think, to take that on and to do so responsibly.”
Pat Mullen Senior VP at Allete, and a DECC Board Member, is part of the working group making the decision, he was quoted as saying that the merger should happen because “Honest to God, I just see nothing but pain and anxiety every meeting.”
Should a decision be made based on pain and anxiety? Is the merger a quick “kiss the boo-boo” bandaid approach that covers a festering wound only to be discovered down the road?
The mayor has no time to consider this.
To end the letter, Emily asks that the group “reconsider their collective view” that the merger would create scarcity when she thinks it will bring abundance. The question is, abundance for whom? The failing DECC?
Emily has a history of responding horribly to men (see here and here) who have contacted her as Mayor of Duluth. The letter from the hospitality industry was signed by mostly men. As citizens of Duluth, we must ask why. Are her snarky, sarcastic, and demeaning responses a defense mechanism – assuming any communique by a man is an attack on a female in a high ranking public position? Does she not realize that this type of response only propagates gender stereotypes of the frantic female who can’t emotionally handle power and the stress of leadership?
While Mayor Larson’s leadership has been, overall, disappointing; her tone and lack of transparency, compassion, and desire to work with her constituents and the business community of Duluth have been a total train wreck. It is embarrassing to have a “leader” that responds to legitimate concerns in this manner. Duluth deserves better.
Hospitality Group’s Letter
Draft of Email sent by hospitality industry leaders
Dear DECC and Visit Duluth Board of Directors,
Today, our business community is facing many challenges, all profoundly exacerbated by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This has proven to be a difficult time, even for the most experienced, well-prepared organizations in our region. Frustrations, as we all know are running high.
In the midst of these circumstances, we now face a push to merge the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Visit Duluth, the area’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO). while this was quite unexpected by most in our area, tourism, and hospitality sectors, we acknowledge that a number of you have invested strategic thinking into the situation. The planning process has yielded a proposed structure and timeline, for instance with a working group report and Q&A document.
While the November 11 “Report of the Working Group” reflects both excitement and opportunity, the urgency of the present situation makes moving forward at such an accelerated place both unwise and unnecessary. As our region faces the hard realities of a pandemic, full attention must be given to supporting area restaurants, lodging, attractions, and other hospitality businesses.
We are hurting now. It would be a mistake to take on such unnecessary distractions without compelling reasons to do so. To date, no convincing rationale has been provided. We entirely agree there could be potential efficiencies in this proposed merger, but it’s important to note that this also has its limits. Moreover, given the range of priorities, needs, and concerns involved, too many questions remain.
For example, in the “Q&A” document (under “Operations/Staffing” 14 a.)the matter of conflict of interest is dismissed with no real discussion of this significant issue: “The Director of Sales will determine how to deploy account management to avoid any conflict of interest.” This falls far short of any serious response. In fact, conflict of interest is a very real concern to many in our industry who provide the same services as the DECC. This matter alone – as only one example of several legitimate concerns – requires diligent, collaborative exploration before proceeding with the proposed merger.
Page 8 of the Working Group report states that the merged organization is to “be lead by an Executive Director as selected by the DECC Board of Directors”. This describes a takeover, not a merger in which all stakeholders have a fair and equitable voice in determining the very future of our tourism economy. For the past 40 years, a private-sector board has guided Visit Duluth efforts – experts with hospitality backgrounds and skin the game rather than a political board. The important sales tax revenue this tourism continues to provide should not be compromised by arbitrary agendas. These and the myriad of related issues can and must be resolved to mutual satisfaction, but forging a hastily prepared joint operating agreement in the next 30 days sidesteps vital input, and needlessly distracts these essential organizations at the very time they’re needed most.
The coming months will set the trajectory of the anticipated recovery of our Duluth tourism and hospitality industry. Because of the critical long-range planning, a pandemic response entails, this spring will be unlike any before, decisions will be made that determine the destination of vacations, events, sports tournaments, association meetings, and more for the next several years. Now, more than ever, we need a robust, whole, fully functioning DMO effort, not one in transition. We are in survival mode.
Respectfully, we’re not advocating abandoning the planning process, rather, that we allow ourselves ample time and planning such momentous decisions deserve, and allow this community to catch up to the process. It’s important to note that these dates and decisions are all self-imposed. At this critical juncture, we can choose to entangle ourselves in the protracted process of merging two successful organizations, or to better support the marketing and sales efforts so critical to our entire hospitality community.
In the minds of many, merging by January 1 is not a foregone conclusion. This process demands greater collaboration, transparency, and accountability. In fairness, all of us in the tourism and hospitality industry need to know what is driving this inexplicable rush, and why such bureaucratic distraction is worth further jeopardizing the livelihoods of those already struggling to stay afloat in this brutal pandemic.
In such extraordinary times, we must unite to meet the moment, and resist the pull of non-essential concerns. The only thing lost in slowing this process is additional stress and diversion. Yes, we can always build greater efficiency and reduce costs, but many things are working well already. Let’s approach this openly, collaboratively, and not choose this critical time to take a left turn.
It’s expected you’ll be asked to vote on the proposed merger at the December board meeting. We ask you to vote NO. Not to cancel out this process, but simply create some breathing room. Enough to allow further study and careful consideration of the concerns surrounding this issue. Further, we urge that the Visit Duluth contract be extended for one year, and funded at the $1.5M the city has proposed for DMO funding for 2021.
Thank you for your consideration,
(We have kept the name of the individuals private, as they are private citizens, but they are Principals, General Managers, and Presidents from prominent businesses like Grandma’s Organization, Suites Hotel, Econo Lodge, Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites, OMC Smokehouse, Duluth Grill, Corktown Deli and Brews, Pier B Resort Hotel, The Blackwoods Group, Radisson Hotel, Inn on Lake Superior, Downtown Duluth Inn, Days Inn Lakewalk, Edgewater Hotel and Water Park, Canal Park Lodge, Canal Park Brewing Company, Days Inn & Suites/Fairfield Inn & Suites Miller Hill Mall, Holiday Inn & Suites Downtown, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Duluth North, and Valentini’s Italian Restaurants.)
Mayor Larson’s Response
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