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Our View: Duluth's biggie events don't just happen

2010 News Tribune file photo / The Duluth Air and Aviation Expo attracts thousands of spectators and generates an estimated $10 million of economic benefit, easily making it one of the Duluth area's biggest regularly held events. It's also the biggest event planned and promoted by Duluth's Ryan Kern and his Kern and Kompany business.

He's the guy, and his is the company, behind some of the biggest events in Duluth, can't-miss happenings like the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo, end-of-season high school all-star games, last weekend's drag races on Garfield Avenue, and this weekend's Hot Air Balloon Festival and Craft Brew Village at Bayfront Festival Park.

So how does Duluth's Ryan Kern and his Kern and Kompany pull it off, time and again?

It starts with the tickle of an idea, said Kern, the featured speaker at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week.

"(Ideas for events) are really born locally. They're either born from my children asking me a question and then it triggers something in me or somebody in the community will come up to me and say, 'Hey, have you ever heard of this?' or, 'Have you ever thought of this?'" Kern said. "And then I start to think about it and it starts to consume me."

For example, at the AAD Shrine Circus, Kern's daughter asked why there were superheroes for boys but nothing really for girls. The Enchanted Tea Party was created, featuring fairy princesses straight out of storybooks and movies.

Once events are conceived, planned, and ready, promoters have to let people know about them, capture people's attention, and intrigue them. That may sound no-brainer basic, but even getting info out there about the where and the when of events often is overlooked, according to Kern.

"In the event industry you have to tell the public what the story is," he said. "You can have the best event known to man, you can have the best concert, the best performers, the best of everything, the best it doesn't matter, but if nobody knows about the event, nobody is coming. That is the No. 1 flaw of not just events regionally but everywhere. Events are put together, and they're so fantastic, but (they fail) if you don't let people know."

Partnerships are key to getting the word out and making events a reality, according to Kern, who tallied 109 corporate and community partnerships with his company this year alone. Former Congressman Jim Oberstar was an important partner in getting the airshow off the ground. Former Duluth City Councilor Russ Stover was the behind-the-scenes force that made the Garfield Avenue drag races happen. Nonprofits organize themselves to pick up trash at the airshow in exchange for a cut of the gate. Emergency agencies are left to do their thing without being micromanaged.

"For me, it always comes down to relationships: who we have relationships with and establishing those relationships. Without relationships, we don't have partners. Without partners, we don't have events. ... And without events, we don't have the proceeds to donate to nonprofit organizations to make it a win-win for everybody," Kern said. "The reality is none of the events happens without partnerships and sponsorships. So many times when we have what I think is a really great idea, if we can't get the funding for it, we shelf the event."

Fortunately for Duluth, events put on by Kern's company and by other area promoters — including the airshow and its $10 million economic impact — aren't getting shelved often.