Talking Tourism: Catalyst for Change

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: October 2021

Talking Tourism: Catalyst for Change – Two Strong Organizations – One Executive Director

By: Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County


Visit Cook County launched as an independent 501(c)(6) in the spring of 2010. The convergence of three tourism associations and strategic partnerships with Grand Portage and Lutsen Mountains resulted in an award-winning Destination Marketing Organization. Building upon that momentum, the Cook County Chamber of Commerce was established three years later to support the internal needs of the business community that traditionally come from a Chamber. When established, the mission of the Chamber was intentionally prioritized around policy and advocacy with Jim Boyd assuming the leadership role as the Chamber’s new Executive Director.

With the recent announcement of Jim’s desire to step down to part-time employment, the Chamber’s Executive Committee began entertaining an idea of one Executive Director leading both the Chamber and Visit Cook County. This organizational model is very common elsewhere, particularly in smaller communities and/or in communities that struggle to sustain two separate organizations both focused on one primary economic driver. Cook County, Minnesota is a shoe-in for both of these circumstances. 

Although there is a difference between the missions and visions of the two organizations, there is notable overlap in membership. As the main driver of the local economy is tourism, the work  on policy, workforce housing, road construction and business communications are only a sample of the intersections these two organizations experience on a daily basis. The Chamber is an inward facing organization; promoting member business, advocacy and policy. Visit Cook County is an outward facing organization; providing area branding, supporting events and programming, providing communications, and soliciting visitors to our areas. 

Under this new model, both organizations will maintain their autonomy and will continue to have two separate boards of directors. Each board will continue to guide the mission, work, and focus of the independent organizations. A new position, Director of Policy and Advocacy, will be created for the Chamber where Jim will remain to continue providing his expertise and leadership in the policy sphere. The seasoned and talented team at Visit Cook County will step in to begin supporting the administrative and membership work of the Chamber. Education and social networking events will be added as a benefit of Chamber membership. 

The single director model provides opportunities for both organizations. Visit Cook County is continuing to work toward a more balanced tourism economy with efforts toward sustainable tourism and destination management beyond destination marketing. These are inward facing initiatives (outside of VCC’s normal scope) but align with the work of local businesses, which in turn affects the Visit Cook County outward facing marketing and branding efforts and tactics. The synergy of work with the Chamber is naturally there, and is a proactive and timely response to the conditions set before us all in working to manage Cook County as a prosperous, safe, friendly, and sustainable destination and home for residents.

Visit Cook County is a firm believer in community engagement and actively seeks diverse voices. Under the leadership of Linda Jurek, Visit Cook County hopes to enhance our tourism partnerships. With strong partners, Visit Cook County continues to work toward the goal of creating balance between a thriving year-round tourism economy and extraordinary visitor experiences while maintaining the quality of life for residents. Boards of both organizations have voted to move forward under this new single director model and believe that Linda will be able to effectively and expertly utilize the strengths of both organizations to be successful together and separately.  

An FAQ has been prepared and can be found here: FAQ Shared Director

Talking Tourism: Leadership Changes for Visit Cook County

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: March 12, 2021

Leadership Changes for Visit Cook County

By Linda Jurek, Executive Director, Visit Cook County

March 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of Visit Cook County. It was our plan to host a small celebration and thank all of our tourism partners for the outstanding work accomplished in the  promotion of tourism in northeastern Minnesota.  Of course, COVID sent us down a much different path and now, nearly one year later, we want to take time to express our gratitude. The Board of Directors for Visit Cook County gathered virtually via zoom on January 20th for their annual board retreat to set strategic goals and priorities for the upcoming year.

Since the foundation of Visit Cook County, there has been significant leadership changes as businesses change ownership and individuals take turns leading the organization. Because of the evolution of the organization, the Visit Cook County team prepared an in depth Organizational Guidebook which highlights the milestones of our organization’s change and growth. This guidebook exemplifies the work that has been done by this organization and the journey of the board leadership. It is a foundational tool to reflect on as we look forward to the future of tourism in our community.

In addition to the guidebook, we also created a community assessment portfolio. This portfolio provides a summary of marketing efforts as well as growth in visitor numbers and lodging tax collection. Together these help to provide a sense of the full marketing scope. Both documents can be found on our website in the Marketing section of the Media Room.

Leadership of Visit Cook County

The leadership of Visit Cook County is composed of many leaders from every corner of Cook County. Our board of directors includes representation from three tourism associations, Grand Marais Area Tourism Association (GMATA), Lutsen Tofte Tourism Association (LTTA) and the Gunflint Trail Association (GTA), as well as contributing partner Lutsen Mountains. Each association receives a seat at the table and the number of seats per association is assigned based upon the percentage of lodging tax contributed by that community. Each association is responsible for electing their representatives to the Visit Cook County board.

At the time of the Board Retreat, the board recognized the resignation of Beth Kennedy and the new appointment of Eric Humphrey. Welcome Eric! Beth Kennedy, who started several businesses in Grand Marais and successfully passed them on to her children, was named the Cook County Chamber’s Community Business Leader of the Year in 2016. Beth has a long-term commitment to our community, especially for her work with Empty Bowls and Ruby’s Pantry, and her “passion and caring about the lives of others”. And at a recent meeting of LTTA, the board accepted the resignation of Dennis Rysdahl and the appointment of Katie Krantz. Dennis sold Bluefin Bay approximately one year ago and has been serving in a transitional advisory capacity. He has served on numerous boards of directors and is recognized for his leadership skills and generous gift of his time. In November 2020, Dennis was selected as the Business of Leader of the Year, Cook County Chamber of Commerce.)

Current board leadership of Visit Cook County:

  • Jennifer Kennedy, Chair (GMATA)
  • Charles Skinner, Vice Chair (LTTA)
  • John Fredrickson, Treasurer (GTA)
  • Carl Madsen (GTA)
  • NEW Katie Krantz (LTTA)
  • Thom McAleer (LTTA)
  • Mike Larson (LTTA)
  • Bryce Campbell (LTTA)
  • Emily Haussner (LTTA)
  • Jim Vick (Lutsen Mountains)
  • Dave Tersteeg (GMATA)
  • NEW Eric Humphry (GMATA)

In addition to Visit Cook County board meetings, each association meets a few times per year. This spring, each association has met and nominated new board members. Two new board members were welcomed to the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association. Rachelle Christiansen (Skyport Lodge/Raven Rock Grill) and Eric Humphrey (Lake Superior Trading Post), joined a board of seasoned hospitality leaders including Jennifer Kennedy (East Bay Suites), Sara Hingos (Crooked Spoon), Dave Tersteeg (GM Recreational Park), Tom Nelson (Nelson’s Travelers Rest), and Chris Mehlhaff (Best Western). The leadership of the GTA includes John Fredrickson (Gunflint Lodge), Carl Madsen (Rockwood Lodge), Nancy Waver (Trout Lake Resort) and Deb Mark (Seagull Canoe Outfitters).  LTTA leadership welcomed Katie Krantz (Bluefin Bay) as a new board member in January.  Katie joined the following individuals in providing leadership from our “west end” communities: Mike Larson (Cascade Vacation Rentals), Bryce Campbell (Lutsen Resort), Emily Haussner (Caribou Highlands), Jim Vick (Lutsen Mountains), Charles Skinner (Eagle Ridge), Kim Corliss (North Shore Winery), and Thom McAleer (Cascade Lodge and Restaurant).

That’s 32 individual leaders providing advice and direction to the Visit Cook County team. We encourage you to read the Organizational Guidebook and Community Assessment. And as always, give us a call or email if you have cool ideas to share, questions on tourism, or have an interest in joining one of the boards.

Talking Tourism: A New Year by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: January 15, 2021

Talking Tourism – A New Year

By Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County MN

It takes a distinctive person to call northeastern Minnesota home. It also takes business resiliency that is understood but sometimes not recognized.  That is, until faced with a pandemic that set all of us reeling. In March we closed. And I mean truly closed. This decision was difficult and scrutinized by leaders from every sector (healthcare, government, tourism). After heartfelt and respectful conversations, it was agreed that this would be best for our community. When your economy is vastly dependent on tourism, closing takes on a whole new meaning.

As a person who leads an organization that promotes our area, this has always seemed like a no brainer. Why wouldn’t a person want to visit here?  For those of us that are fortunate enough to call this area home, we understand the allure; the inland lakes, THE LAKE, the BWCAW, the highest falls, the miles and miles of hiking trails; the list is extensive.  Early during the closure and as I participated in industry calls from across the nation, I learned that the tourism persona would change. Our visitors would likely travel from a home base radius 250-300 miles from their homes, they would load the family in the car and drive and they would check items off their personal travel and “back yard” bucket lists . That is precisely what happened.

The shift began. Working together, we established protocols that would keep our community safe while allowing our businesses to operate.  In May, as lodging worked diligently to implement new COVID protocols, it became a question of not how to open but rather when. We are a vocal community and there was a certain amount of fear regarding public scrutiny and opening your business during a pandemic.

However, we figured it out. We opened. And the people came. And COVID remained at bay. Over and over again, when engaged in tourism industry calls, I heard how many areas in Minnesota, surrounding states and across the nation struggled mightily with decreased visitors. Areas that were reliant on conferences and major sporting events were ghost towns and were operating at 20-30% over last year. Cook County is fortunate. We have the vast outdoors and many lodging opportunities that are either remote or spacious. We continued to be vocal about our expectations for behavior. A united community voice was heard stating we expect social distancing – One Moose Apart. We expect masks on in our stores. There was a spirit of cooperation that I believe will continue long after we emerge from the restrictions imposed by COVID.

While many businesses continue to struggle and have questions about future workforce, there is a glimmer of hope. The occupancy rates of our lodging facilities outpaced most of Minnesota. Bringing your own linens and not “turning stayovers” helped set a new and accepted hospitality protocol. The determination displayed during the past 10 months will continue. Our people are the heart of hospitality day in and day out and we thank you.

Although festivals and events may look different in 2021, they will return and we will recover. We will continue to welcome tens of thousands of visitors to our area. The determination and strength displayed by our business owners will prevail. The pandemic helped us truly understand the ups and downs and ins and outs of a tourism based economy, and I believe we all have a deeper appreciation one another.

I look forward to greeting you all again in the near future. Happy New Year.

Talking Tourism: Business Hours & Free Website Listings

Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: August 2020

Talking Tourism: Business Hours & Free Website Listings by Linda Jurek

It’s hard to believe that just five months ago, our corner of Minnesota was closed. Doors were shut; we transitioned quickly to remote work, cut budgets, and furloughed employees. Days were spent navigating complex loan applications, analyzing business structures, and meeting with local leaders to discuss what to do next as a community. While tourism experts predicted that travelers would choose destinations like ours, close to home and outdoors, Visit Cook County was busy trying to prepare for an unpredictable future of summer tourism. For all the reasons we love our corner of Minnesota, so do many others, but what would this look like in the world of 2020? Our VCC team and board of directors went to task, and dove headfirst into strategically re-aligning our work with the needs of our community.

Visit Cook County did not escape budget cuts. In fact, we shrank our summer marketing budget by 80% and refocused our energy and resources on how to prepare to reopen our community carefully and strategically–always keeping the safety of our community as a top priority and top of mind. The COVID Resources page on our website shows the evolution of marketing during a pandemic and is chock-full of information and tools for local business owners, including zoom backgrounds, Facebook profile frames, a Visitor’s Pledge, Best Practice Guide, marketing materials (including the beloved “One Moose Apart” campaign) and a whole lot more. Visit Cook County has also made significant investments in providing free face coverings for the public, a vital and important part of how to keep the community safe during this time.

For several years, Visit Cook County has monitored and publicized retail and dining hours as well as weekend lodging availability on our website. This summer, this work continued and, in many cases, has doubled or tripled as businesses respond to staffing shortages and new covid-19 protocols. While planning their visit north, visitors are finding this information extremely useful, and user traffic to our site reflects it. As demand increased, we felt it was important to make this information the most user-friendly and engaging experience possible. A new interface that is mobile-compatible has been updated on our site. We will be distributing postcards and posters to local businesses that have an easily scannable QR code for quick access to local hours for both dining and retail. Users can also go to the home page of and click on the banner “FIND UPDATED HOURS.”

What started as a conversation to help our local artists and musicians generate income during this time has evolved into much more. Due to the incredible efforts and economic hardships of 2020, Visit Cook County wants to offer all local businesses the opportunity to list FOR FREE on our website for one full year. We are hoping that this opportunity for a FREE Visit Cook County listing will help lodging, local services, guides, dining, retail, artists, and musicians expand their exposure to visitors. And that will continue to be the most comprehensive local business list in our community.

If you would like to get your business listed, contact Maggie Barnard, Communications Manager

As the leaves lose their luster and cool fall mornings feel like they are right around the corner, it’s a good time to take a deep breath and acknowledge all that we’ve accomplished as a community during these strange and hard times. Summer of 2020, with all of its perplexities will soon be in the books. While it has been challenging at times, we’ve also seen the strength and adaptability of our community. We are a place that watches out for one and other, and strives to celebrate diversity. We are a place that works together to overcome unforeseen obstacles. Visit Cook County thanks each and every one of you for navigating these unprecedented times with us. As the season changes, we are looking to the future more than ever, and are excited to continue to be an important resource for the community we serve and hold in the highest of esteem.

Be safe, stay adventurous, and wear a mask.


Linda Jurek, Executive Director – Visit Cook County

Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County

Linda Jurek, Executive Director of Visit Cook County

Talking Tourism: Fisherman’s Picnic by Dan Helmerson

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: July 2019

Talking Tourism: Fisherman’s Picnic by Dan Helmerson

Our annual Fisherman’s Picnic is just around the corner. Can you believe that it has been going on for 90 years? That makes it the same vintage as Naniboujou Lodge and the Stickney Inn & Store (now Cross River Heritage Center) both built in 1929.  It started the summer of that year as an informal gathering of North Shore fisherman and their families and remained a relatively local event for the next two decades.  It really started to take off after the end of WWII when folks were able to buy new cars again and didn’t have to contend with gas rationing.  The Picnic as we know it today can be mainly attributed to the Grand Marais Lions Club who has shouldered the responsibility of sponsoring, organizing and presenting this event since 1952.

Over the decades things have inevitably changed, old attractions dropped and new activities added.  Many of us “young old-timers” fondly remember:

  • Carnival Rides – Octopus, Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round, and of course the carny game booths – Pitch-A-Penny, Shooting Gallery, Milk Bottle Toss, Mechanical Claw.
  • Miss North Shore Pageant – This highly anticipated event encouraged local businesses to sponsor high school girls as candidates and attendants.
  • Boat Parade – Decorated boats and cabin cruisers would circle the harbor carrying the Miss North Shore queen candidates.
  • Gymkhana – Local hot-rodders got a chance to show their stuff navigating around the course of traffic cones set up in the high school parking lot.
  • Greased Pole Contest – Fellows would attempt to climb out on a timber pole striped of bark and greased up until it was gleaming.  The pole was extended out over the harbor and the object was to retrieve the flag from the end of the pole without taking a spill into the water.
  • Trout Pond – Brook Trout were stocked in the Bear Tree Park fountain for youngsters to catch.
  • Fresh Raspberry Sundaes – A tradition at Leng’s Fountain.
  • Grand Prize / New Car – On all the game shows a new car was always the ultimate prize, and so it was for years at the Picnic.  Usually a compact economy sized car, it was displayed up on cement blocks on the corner of the Standard Gas Station (now Harbor Park).

The Picnic is a time for making memories.  I’m sure everyone has their own particular recollection of one special event.  I am now old enough to have over 50 years of Picnics to reflect back upon.  As kids we eagerly anticipated that first weekend in August.  We had saved up our allowances and summer job money to blow it all in a couple of days.  If our father was a Lion’s Club member we usually helped sell raffle tickets door to door.  As I got older I was able to participate in events such as playing in the marching band that lead the parade on Sunday and help decorate floats for various clubs.  It was an exciting time when everyone “came to town” and you would see your schoolmates, relatives and friends all over the village.  After graduating from CCHS and striking out on my own, if I planned a trip back home in the summer you could be sure it would be over the Picnic weekend.  As I got older I appreciated seeing the folks I had grown up with and reconnect with classmates at Class Reunions and far flung relatives at Family Reunions.

The Fisherman’s Picnic is also a time for making new friends and welcoming the visitors to our town.  I find that most of the tourists enjoy talking with the locals and learning more about our community “from the horse’s mouth” as it were.  If you find yourself standing in a line for a fish burger, ask the person behind you “Where are you from?”  If they aren’t a tourist they could very well be someone you went to school with but didn’t recognize!

Dan Helmerson, Visit Cook County Info Center & Local Historian

Dan Helmerson, Visit Cook County Info Center & Local Historian

Talking Tourism: The Lutsen 99er… and the Importance of Setting Goals by Molly O’Neill

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: June 2019

Talking Tourism: The Lutsen 99er… and the Importance of Setting Goals by Molly O’Neill, Administrative Manager and casual endurance mountain biker

At the end of this month, I’m going to ride my mountain bike a hundred miles through the forest with over five hundred other crazy people. I mean “athletes”. If all goes well, I expect to be on my bike for at least ten hours to complete the course. Now it sounds crazy, right? How this particular challenge became one I need to check off my bucket-list is a little unclear even to me. Simply announcing the intention does nothing to guarantee that I’ll accomplish the goal. But this year, 2019, I’ve committed to trying. As the Lutsen 99er began to gain popularity several years ago, so did mountain biking in the community, and I thought that it was a fun thing to add to the active outdoor lifestyle I sought. Group rides became a regular activity, and I busted out my dad’s old Trek rigid frame from my parents’ shed. I remember him bringing it home when I was eight years old, a dinosaur by today’s standards but top-of-the-line in its day. Nearly two decades later I promised myself, and the raised eyebrows around me, that if I could ride the 39er that year on that bike, that I’d start saving to upgrade and maybe someday I’d ride the whole 99er.

Setting goals to tackle major challenges comes with a full set of lessons and emotions from humility and humor to confidence and pride, and are all best handled with plenty of grace. I had a mountain bike as a kid, and just like other kids, I fell off from time to time. Let me tell you, falling off your bike as an adult is every bit as traumatic and far more startling than it was at ten years old. Mastering how to clip and unclip my new shoes from the pedals was the first of many techniques learned by repeated failures on the trails and backroads. Learning how to train is something I feel I’ve just scratched the surface of. How do you form a training plan that will get you to the finish line? Do you set your goals by distance? By speed or time? How often should you ride or cross train? Do you need rest days? How do you measure your progress?  How do you equip yourself to accomplish these goals? What do you do about your failures?

My approach is part feeling my way through the dark, part gleaning knowledge from others with more experience, and part winging it. There is validation in setting a mark for yourself and improving whether you’ve set appropriate goals and met them or not. Some days you miss the mark and it can be discouraging, but more often I find that if I quiet the voice in my head that says “you’re too tired” or “it might rain” or “you can do it tomorrow” and put on my gear and head out the door it gets better from there. Even if I didn’t complete a planned route in the goal time I aimed for or I cut my plan short, I usually saw improvement the next time I went out. Breathing was easier or my quads didn’t burn quite so badly the next ride, even if I’d fallen short on some of my ambitions last ride. Some goals are formed on the fly, in tiny increments like pushing hard until the next road sign or up one more little hill or just two more minutes of effort. It’s the culmination of the little goals and small accomplishments that build your training base into a greater schedule of goals that prepares you to carry yourself 100 miles on two wheels.

Long-distance rides and miles per hour aren’t the only benchmarks you need to set for yourself. Though the race course has aid stations with mechanical, nutritional, and medical support, your training rides do not. Becoming capable of taking care of your body and your equipment on your own are critical aspects of training. Do I know how to repair a flat tire or to recognize when I need a snack before I’m too fatigued? With long routes through sections without cell phone coverage, it’s still possible to get stranded on your own for quite some time without rescue. On some routes, I’ve ridden with my running shoes in my pack because I’m a better jogger than I am a bike mechanic… Improving my bike repair know-how and learning how to efficiently fuel and replenish my body while riding have been essential goals to keep setting.

As I write this article, the race is still in front of me. I’m approaching the critical point in which I have to be brutally honest with myself in evaluating my progress on weekly mileage and pace goals. If I can’t ride at a minimum pace on race day, I’ll miss the cutoff times and get pulled out at an aid station. All the efforts with none of the gratification of finishing, of checking off that box at the finish line would be pretty disheartening. Using a sports tracking app on my phone, I’ve recorded all my training rides to measure my pace and ride statistics. I’m in good position for the first 30-40 miles. But will I be able to sustain that for another 60 miles without debilitating muscle cramps or risking injury from being underprepared? Will I have the discipline to continue to push my body past the limits I thought it was subject to? Will I have the confidence to see it through? If the public commitment of a newspaper article for all my family, friends and community to see isn’t enough to keep pushing me through the mud and exhaustion, I’m not sure what is. I hope to see some familiar faces out there on the trail testing their own goals with me on race day.

For event information and a spectator map of the four courses, check out or


Molly O'Neill - Administrative Manager of Visit Cook County MN

Molly O’Neill – Administrative Manager of Visit Cook County MN

Talking Tourism: Let’s do the Zipper Merge by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: May 2019

Talking Tourism: Let’s Do the Zipper Merge by Linda Jurek, Executive Director

What’s that you ask? No it’s not a lesson from my Home Economic class of 1973 but rather a traffic term used during construction. With our Highway 61 construction project of 2020 and 2021, we need to understand the lingo. When you see a sign noting a lane closure and the instruction to merge, do you merge right away? And then do you watch with irritation as other drivers simply continue until the last merge point? The driver who continues and merges at the last possible point is actually doing what is recommended. However, it only works if all drivers understand and are courteous and thoughtful.

Using the zipper merge will not be as critical for our project; however, it will help you navigate the North Shore during lane reductions. More importantly, the courteous and thoughtful approach is what I’m keen on.

I just returned from attending a meeting of the Highway 61 Steering Committee. Many groups were represented the Grand Marais Business Coalition, Grand Marais Area Tourism Association, Grand Marais city officials, Cook County officials, Cook County Chamber and GM citizens. We heard a brief update and were provided the opportunity to provide input for strategies on parking, signage and branding. I am stoked. Over 30 business owners and citizens were in attendance. Great questions were presented in a respectful manner. Mike Roth, City Administrator noted that MN DOT will be opening bids for the project June of 2019. There will also be cost sharing conversations regarding implementation and maintenance of sidewalk, trails, street lights, benches, planters, etc.

Remember the Burma Shave signs? They were witty and fun and more importantly, impressed the reader with a lasting message. I think we can all agree that the MN DOT signage which is a requirement for most road construction, serves its purpose, but we can add an element of enjoyment to construction. The Highway 61 Steering Committee will be restarting our engines to provide input on parking, branding and marketing for this exciting project. As traffic is detoured into Grand Marais on Cty. Rd. 7, we visualize signage that sends a positive message and helps direct our visitors and locals alike.

And of course, stay educated and positive. We can discuss this construction project in an upbeat way. We don’t need to apologize. Rather, we should build excitement for the end result. A negative attitude and a constant complaint will drive people away and a fun atmosphere will bring them back. Stay tuned on all construction details on the City of Grand Marais website. Patrick Knight, Communications Manager for Grand Marais, will also be creating a new site call

Linda Jurek July 2016


Cook County News Herald by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism: Superior Trail Races – How an event extends beyond the weekend

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: April 2019

Talking Tourism: Superior Trail Races – How an event extends beyond the weekend | by John Storkamp,  Race Director for the Superior Trail Races

In 1991 an ambitious group of volunteers created the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota.  The concept was pretty simple, yet would prove to be forward thinking and well ahead of its time.  The idea was this; runners would run continuously, day and night, through Lake and Cook counties, through several Minnesota state parks, on the newly minted Superior Hiking Trail and would cover 100 miles in the process.  As a result, the North Shore lays claim to the 10th oldest 100 mile trail running race in the country.  Today, there are nearly 200 trail races of this distance in the United States and their rise in popularity over the last decade can only be described as meteoric. Look at what the marketing-types now call “adventure tourism” and the boon that it can bring to the economies of small outstate communities and the creation of the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race by those volunteers all the way back in 1991 looks downright prophetic.

The first year that the race was held, there were 27 finishers, today we have more people volunteering at a single aid station (aid station; think water-stop like at a half or full road marathon but with a lot of good grub for famished runners and perhaps an impromptu dance party breaking out from time to time). But for all of the growth and changes over the years, the motivation of our runners remains the same.  People want to get out and challenge themselves in one of the most breathtakingly rugged and beautiful places in the country; The North Shore, Lake Superior, Cook and Lake Counties, Minnesota state parks and the Superior Hiking Trail.

Today, the Superior Trail Races consist of both Spring and Fall editions with Caribou Highlands Lodge on Lutsen Mountain acting as race headquarters – all races finishing in the shadow of the unmistakable Moose Mountain.  The Spring edition of the race is always held the weekend before Memorial weekend and features 12.5KM, 25KM and 50KM races while the Fall edition is always held the weekend after Labor Day weekend and features a 26.2 Mile, 50 Mile and 100 Mile race.  The field limit for both the Spring and Fall editions of the race is just shy of 1000 participants and due to the popularity of each event, not everyone that wants to race can get in, so registration is held via a lottery.  It takes about 200 volunteers to pull off the Spring race and nearly 400 to pull off the Fall race and volunteering in many ways has become an equal draw on event weekend.  While we do have many great volunteers from the North Shore, the lion’s share come from Duluth, the Twin Cities and many other Minnesota communities – some folks even traveling from out of state just to volunteer!  In a given season we will host runners from nearly all 50 states and multiple countries.  Runners more often than not travel with friends and family and plan a vacation around their race.  Add up the runners, the volunteers and the spectators and we get to introduce, or share again, our beloved North Shore with a lot of really great, like-minded people.

Trail and ultra runners are pretty low key individuals and often times like to fly under the radar, likely a function of how tough the sport is – they put themselves out there with their actions and often times not their words.  For many years the races themselves flew under the radar as well but with increased interest and popularity things have evolved over the past decade.  Hotels and motels reach capacity, restaurants and cafe’s along Highway 61 bustle… today, people know when the races are happening.  Given the increased size, scope and overall footprint of the races we rely on more volunteers, more sponsors and a core group of local partners – significant among them Visit Cook County.  These relationships and the contributions of our partners help us keep the Superior Trail Races operationally and reputationally strong not only in Minnesota but nationally and internationally.

While it may sound ambitious, through the grace of our runners, volunteers and partners we have been quietly achieving our mission for quite some time: To provide fun, challenging and life-changing experiences for our runners, their friends, families and our volunteers alike. To deliver maximum benefit to the area and communities therein. To drive interest, members, volunteers, donations and funding to the Superior Hiking Trail – the conduit that runs throughout and ultimately makes all of these good works possible.

/// John Storkamp is the Race Director for the Superior Trail Races.  He and his wife Cheri spearhead the events which are only made possible through the efforts of an extremely committed group of their friends, referred to in the above story as “volunteers”. John took his first backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail in 1996 and has been on the trail ever since. John and Cheri split their time between Hastings, MN and Silver Bay, MN.

Superior Trail Races

Talking Tourism: What do you want to be?

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: March 2019

Talking Tourism: What do you want to be? | by Anna Klobuchar

As an adult with life experience, what do you wish you had been told about careers?  Or, as a teenager contemplating a future vocation, what information would be beneficial? Visit Cook County will attend the College and Opportunities Fair on April 3 at ISD #166 to let the students know how their various interests and potential post-secondary plans can directly align with the industry of tourism, entrepreneurial endeavors in our county or employment in our organization.  We thrive on new ideas, positivity, fresh perspectives, and that “fire in the belly” drive that young people can bring to us.

Yes, tourism drives 85% of Cook County’s economy.  But I am writing to you from the perspective that not only are lodges, restaurants and retail businesses important employers in our area, Visit Cook County is a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) and is also an employer to a team of 11 people who blend their various strengths, educational backgrounds, and talents to attract and provide assistance to visitors.  It works because we work. Hard. And, the team also drops their paychecks into our local economy every two weeks.  According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2016, those employed in the hospitality and leisure industry contributed to a workforce of 15 million jobs nationwide.

Growing up on the Iron Range, I had a hardworking friend who at the age of 12, much like Hermey the misfit elf in Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, stated that she wanted to become at dentist. And she did! The rest of us don’t make such emphatic career choices so early. In today’s lightning speed, ever changing world, perhaps the message to the dewy-eyed 16 to 18 year olds is that it’s okay if they don’t know at such a young age what they want to the do for the rest of their lives.

At Visit Cook County, we have a Psychology major as our Finance Administrator, working with complex budgets and databases.  You’re reading an article from a Journalism/Political Science major who is now the Information Center Coordinator. Our Executive Director started as a Theater major, detoured into motherhood, and has a passion for people and organizational management.  She has worked in medical transcription, insurance coding, owned multiple businesses, was a kick box instructor, and later became Director of Retention and worked on major events with the Duluth Chamber and Greater Duluth Downtown Council.  Lastly, our Events Resource Coordinator discovered a huge university didn’t work for her, returned home for a breather, and is now carrying a full load of on-line classes pursuing her Accounting and Organizational Management degrees. Our Marketing Manager and our Communications Manager are the two who are currently practicing their majors in their current occupations. They both spent many years in other fields of art and hospitality.

Our advice to the young, upcoming work force? Study what interests you, and the important skills to learn are to problem solve and communicate your ideas. Explore the jobs available through a DMO such as ours.  What occupations fall under that umbrella?  The list is endless!  Our area is rich in artistry and creativity. We work with photographers, graphic designers, videographers, and layout artists.  We rely on and employ those who are website builders, coders, techie data chasers, analytical programmers,receptionists, writers, file managers, historians, researchers, sales managers, customer service representatives, skilled communicators, social network strategists, and foreign language translators.  And that truly is the tip of the iceberg.

The ethereal “find your bliss”, or “do what you love” counsel may apply to few right away, but sometimes it takes a while to make that happen or get discovered.  In today’s economy, useful guidance is more along the lines of “figure out what you are good at and what you find satisfying and work in that field.”  Then, roll up your sleeves and have at it. Discipline, motivation, compromise, humility, flexibility and honesty will carry you through your chosen profession or vocation.  Career satisfaction often comes from the people you work with and who surround you, and not particularly what you do.  And lastly, don’t fear change.   The best life lessons are the ones you learn by trial and error, and these job fairs are a great opportunity to open the students’ eyes to all the choices they have.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Talking Tourism: Secret Sauce

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: February 2019

Talking Tourism: Secret Sauce | by Kjersti Vick

Last week at the annual Explore Minnesota Tourism Conference in the Twin Cities, Visit Cook County was brought up by our peers as a model that is working. Being industry leaders, Linda was asked to present on a panel of experts discussing “Creating Impactful Events” to a standing room only room. The secret is out, what we are doing is working to drive tourism and awareness to our region.

Visit Cook County was founded in 2010 when the three tourism associations decided to stop competing against each other and combine forces to achieve a greater market share.  In our relatively short history, our region has seen unprecedented growth in lodging tax. While the peak summer months still see the largest influx of lodging tax dollars, the months that have seen the most significant growth from 2011, until 2017 are:

  1. April + 60%
  2. June + 59%
  3. May +58%
  4. October +48%
  5. November +43%

We were tasked with driving traffic during the “shoulder seasons” or times of the year when businesses felt an increase in traffic would be beneficial to sustaining their ability to remain open and therefor sustain their workforce. Our team of marketing experts and the board strategized on what we could do to either convert current guests from peak season to shoulder season visitors and/or attract new market segments.

Enter “Waterfall Season.” Utilizing our natural assets, we changed the perspective of mud season by creating a new season embracing what occurs naturally – the melting of snow and ice on the inland lakes rushing down to Lake Superior. In addition to seeing an increase in visitation, we’ve seen more social media posts about waterfalls and received some significant press in major publications like the Star Tribune. On our website, our waterfall map is one of our most sought after downloads.

Beyond our natural assets, we are unique in another way thanks to our locally collected 1% Events Tax. The events tax has allowed us to be a strategic partner with event producers to both enhance the visitor experience and develop events that will attract new visitors to the region. Major events like the Lutsen99er, is one of the biggest successes. Prior to the Lutsen99er, the month of June was a hit or miss and its success was incredibly weather dependent. Since 2011, in the Lutsen-Tofte-Schroeder lodging tax district, June has seen a 64% increase in lodging tax collections. This can be directly attributed to the success of this great event which has also caused a ripple effect of an increased awareness of biking in our community. The result? New single-track mountain bike trails being built as well as new biking events throughout the year.

Because of the foresight of the leadership from our three tourism associations, Visit Cook County has become a premiere Destination Marketing Organization in Minnesota. Our success is one part location and tradition mixed with two parts creative marketing.

2019 Visit Cook County at Explore Mn

Pictured from left to right: Lynn Nelson of LINPR, Kjersti Vick of Visit Cook County MN, Lily Nelson-Pedersen of Visit Cook County, Barb Darland of Giant Voices, and Linda Jurek of Visit Cook County MN

Talking Tourism: What Shoulder Season?

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: December 2018

Talking Tourism: What Shoulder Season? | by Amanda Plummer, Guest Services Director & Marketing Assistant at Lutsen Mountains (Guest Author)

Even though our slopes have been open for a few weekends now, this time of year our community takes a collective deep breath as the pace slows down and the seasons change, this is known to most as a shoulder season. A shoulder season is a travel season between peak and off-peak times, a season that many in travel and tourism have come to greatly appreciate and anticipate. At Lutsen Mountains however, our shoulder season lasts exactly three weeks, and even during that time while we may not have guests onsite the action behind the scenes outpaces even summer.

While thoughts of winter are in the back of our minds year-round, the moment the temperature drops we hit high gear as we prepare our slopes for our winter enthusiasts. First up is our snowmaking and maintenance crews, working around the clock to combine the powers of man and machine to create the core of our business, SNOW. We often post through social media to #thankasnowmaker and I know I don’t do it enough myself. What they create is magic and without it we wouldn’t be able to operate from mid-November through May which is an amazing season in the Snowsports industry! But a larger than life pile of snow isn’t all it takes, first we need to get people to start thinking about winter which can be hard to do when they are thinking of turkey and stuffing which is where marketing comes into play. This time of year, we work to increase our digital reach and our share of the winter market through social media, email and our website. The more eyes we have on Lutsen and our snowmaking now, the more skiers and riders we have as we get into the full swing of operations.

Once they are ready to book, they head online for their ski & stay package. We partner with fifteen area resorts from Schroeder to Grand Marais to offer discounted rates when lift tickets and lodging are bundled together. These partnerships are crucial to winters in Cook County as we all work together to fill our lodging spaces as well as secure the commitment from customers for their time spent on the slopes, in our shops, and in our restaurants. With nearly 100,000 skier visits each season, the ripple effect of these guests and the jobs and families they support become a key economic driver in the community.

As the shoulder season fades, peak season is just around the corner (daily operations resume Friday, December 14th) and our team of 50 core employees has grown to 150 including our seasonal staff to meet the added demands of peak winter. While there is a ton of work behind the scenes, in the end, we are sharing an active winter lifestyle, creating memories and building family traditions. See you on the slopes!

Talking Tourism - guest author- Amanda Plummer of Lutsen Mountains

Talking Tourism – guest author- Amanda Plummer of Lutsen Mountains

Talking Tourism: Knitting Together Education and Tourism

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: November 2018

Talking Tourism: Knitting Together Education and Tourism | by Lily Nelson-Pedersen

As the daughter of an educator, I was taught young to ask questions and derive joy from learning and interacting with the world around me. Growing up in a tourist community like Cook County (and specifically in the lobby of the East Bay–the hotel my family owned) enriching experiences often came from interacting with the guests and visitors who were traveling to our area. It always felt to me that our community was improved by tourism, bringing with each car traveling up Highway 61 new fashions, new ideas, and new interests from what felt like a very distant place.

One problem in our small community can be a lack of resources to bring that far outside world in. Whether those resources are a lack of people, funds, or knowledge, tourism can be an excellent vehicle for bringing opportunities to Cook County. At Visit Cook County, weaving together chances to enhance the lives of our year-round residents and create memorable experiences for our visitors is a win-win.

One way in which we try to do this is with educational programs and events. We provide scholarships to students as a part of the Lutsen 99er bike race, host presentations on Lake Superior storms, and are newly partnering with the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium and Astronomer Joel Halvorson of UMD, all to both create a lasting impression for our visitors and also to use the industry and resources of tourism to enrich the lives of locals. Halvorson is bringing up a traveling planetarium, the GeoDome, and making stops at area schools in Tofte, Grand Portage, and in Grand Marais over the week of December 10th – 14th.  Halvorson owns a cabin on the Gunflint Trail, which he visits often, and has big visions for future Dark Sky events and education in Cook County.

My job as Event Resource Coordinator brings with it the privilege of getting to knit together these two worlds of education and tourism, to share with guests to our area and the locals a love for learning and joy from new discovery–just as I did as a child. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in the position of helping to create and facilitate more of these experiences for all who call Cook County home, even if it’s only “home” for a few days.

Talking Tourism: The Power of Networking | by Linda Jurek

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: October 2018

Talking Tourism: The Power of Networking | by Linda Jurek

Whether you choose to network at Java Moose over coffee or at one of your favorite watering holes, sharing your business ideas or common interests has been part of our communication processes for what seemingly could be forever. In fact, it is proven that prehistoric man returned to the same location to draw in order to seek comfort, share their stories with a deep desire to connect with others.  The same drawings of the cave walls were also transposed onto earthenware. Was this early social media?

I happen to be of the age where I remember my first Grand Marais home phone number, the rotary phone as well “party lines” and let’s not forget the introduction of the long phone line which allowed a person to venture at least 20 feet from the phone mounted on the kitchen wall. With the surge of social media allowing us to connect via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., the value of a good old face to face may have slipped into the shadows.  But I disagree.

Networking is an experience that might be overstated but is truly a necessity.  If you describe yourself as an introvert, you may also hear yourself saying “I hate networking”.  I like to think of networking with some clear goals in mind. Ask yourself what is it that I want to learn from that person? Make a point of listening and identifying common interests. If you find that common interests aren’t jumping to the surface, think about what you can add to conversation. During my time at the Duluth Chamber, we actually hosted Networking 101 which allowed new and seasoned professionals to connect, meet and share their stories. Being a major extrovert, I often found myself running around and introducing attendees to each other; finding the common link for continued conversation and learning.

And now, while we might not host many formal networking opportunities in our communities, they do exist. Visit Cook County and the Cook County Chamber are happy to host the Fall Gala each year. We have been told time and time again how much people enjoy the opportunity to visit (network) with community members. The Gala includes a social hour, dinner, and music and also allows the opportunity for you to network with local business stakeholders as well as state legislators. We’re excited to host John Edman, Executive Director of Explore MN, as our featured speaker for the event. He will provide us with impactful tourism highlights from around the state.

You won’t want to miss this annual networking opportunity scheduled for Tuesday, October 23rd at 5:30pm at the newly renovated Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. There is still time to register and you can find registration information, lodging and shuttle details on our website at