DULUTH — A man waiting for his order at
The Rambler food truck
on Thursday had a puzzled expression on his face.
Another customer, standing in line, was accompanied by a team of people including a photographer and cinematographer with professional equipment. It seemed like a lot of hullabaloo for a grab-and-go lunch.
Josh Kowaleski explained. “I’m taking photos for Visit Duluth,” he said to the confused customer after snapping images of artist Jonathan Thunder queuing up for a hot dog.
Capturing a seemingly ordinary moment was exactly the point. For next year’s tourism promotion campaigns, Visit Duluth is continuing its push to look beyond the city’s most visible attractions and invite potential visitors to see what the city means to the people who call it home.
“It’s great, because I’m not, like, a salesman for the tourist department of Duluth,” Thunder said earlier that day, standing in his home studio being interviewed by Matt Sebert of the marketing agency Lawrence and Schiller. “This is the stuff I know how to talk about.”
Discussing his work, Thunder shared an anecdote about a local elder. “Jonathan,” she said to him, “the artwork that you post is so weird. You’re such a strange man. Doesn’t your mother worry about you?”
Now that woman, who initially didn’t understand Thunder’s brightly colored paintings full of pop-culture references, is “always liking my artwork,” said the artist with pride. “She keeps tuning in. She can’t look away.”
“Everyone’s seen the (advertisements) where it’s like, ‘Hey, this is beautiful! This is really cool! We have a big lake and we have a big bridge!'” said Sebert, conversing with Thunder. “But I think it’s more fun to talk about weird artwork and strange people making strange works. That’s what interests me.”
Driving between Thunder’s studio and the Joseph Nease Gallery, where the artist has a solo show opening Friday, Sebert discussed Visit Duluth’s upcoming campaigns in the context of the “slow travel” movement. That term refers to travelers’ growing desire to venture beyond the most obvious attractions and take time to discover how locals experience an area.
“A day spent strolling through an unfamiliar neighborhood without a crammed to-do list or exploring a state park with nothing but a route map and a bag of snacks could fall under the umbrella of slow travel,” explains the magazine
“It comes down to how you engage with the world as you move through it.”
“We’ve been talking about what helps people see themselves in this place, and it’s finding a connection with folks like you,” said Tricia Hobbs, conversing with Thunder at the studio. “Understanding how they can see Duluth through the same lens.”
Hobbs, senior economic developer with the city of Duluth, is the local point person for the
tourism marketing realignment
that took effect last year with the pivot toward partnership with Edina-based Bellmont Partners and South Dakota’s Lawrence and Schiller. Representatives from both agencies joined Hobbs last week on a video call to explain their approach to next year’s seasonal campaigns.
“Visitors are looking for authentic experiences,” said Laura Mitchell, of Lawrence and Schiller, on that call. “They can tell when someone’s just trying to show me the beautiful picture of your destination. They’re like, ‘Hey, I know you think it’s beautiful, and you’re going to show me your best. I want to know what it’s really going to be like when I go there.'”
Hence the hot dog stop, which was Thunder’s own suggestion. The opportunity to enjoy a tasty lunch at a
in the middle of “the nation’s finest remaining example of Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful ideals” (as historians Tony Dierckins and Maryanne C. Norton
the Civic Center Historic District), with a view of Duluth Harbor, may not be on most shortlists of things to do in Duluth — but locals know not to miss it.
The new marketing approach doesn’t omit the city’s marquee attractions. When Katelyn Short, of Lawrence and Schiller, joined the group at the gallery, she reported that “we got the cutest stuff at the aquarium.” Images of Lake Superior, the Aerial Lift Bridge, and other highly recognizable sights will be incorporated into the profile segments.
Project staff convene in Duluth multiple times each year to capture images and video of the city throughout our dramatic seasonal weather swings. Thunder was a focus of the fall trip, while this past summer the team spent time with Sandi Larson of Women Hike Duluth and Eric Goerdt of Northern Waters Smokehaus.
While some images from this year may be seen soon on Visit Duluth’s website and elsewhere, most of the content will be used for next year’s campaigns. Locals will have the opportunity to preview the new approach at an industry event early in 2024.
Mitchell and Megan Anderson, of Bellmont Partners, recently attended a U.S. Travel Association conference where they heard about other locales taking the same approach. New Orleans, for example, is encouraging visitors to take a few steps outside the French Quarter. Puerto Rico wants to highlight its attractions beyond the beach.
“Duluth is a great city to showcase that,” said Anderson. “Beyond the lake, there’s so many beautiful things in Duluth.”
A member of the Red Lake Band, Thunder draws on Ojibwe stories and characters — such as Mishi-bizhiw, head of the water spirits — in his work. While Lake Superior inspires and energizes the artist, he doesn’t create northwoods landscape paintings such are often seen in local shops and galleries.
“Kudos to those artists, if that’s where they find the beauty. My beauty comes from the human experience,” said Thunder, standing among his work on display at the gallery. “Here in Duluth, people are great, people are sad. People are grateful, people are ungrateful. People are healthy, people are sick. That’s the story that fuels us all, and that’s the story that I want to tell.”
“We’re really capturing loving it like they do,” said Short about the local personality spotlights — referencing “love it like we do,” the tourism slogan the campaigns have been built around — “but also bringing the visitor here through those stories.”
“It’s definitely the folks that hold the place together that make it a cool place,” said Thunder. “Duluth is already inspiring in itself, but I wouldn’t stay here if there weren’t cool people.”
For more information on Jonathan Thunder and his work, see
For details on his upcoming show, visit
For more on Visit Duluth, see