Photo courtesy of Steve Kotvis of f/go Photography
City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival
City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival
Amid a bustling weekday crowd that’s thawing the sub-zero bluster of mid-December with coffee and pastries, Eric Dayton strides into the Bachelor Farmer Café like he owns the place.
He does own it, of course, but that’s not where his resolute manner comes from. He is a man on a mission—a really big, really cold, really snowy mission. The man who dubbed Minnesota’s slice of the Midwest “North” and created The Skyway Avoidance Society (an organization dedicated to getting people into a parka and out of the skyways) is doubling down on his love of winter’s chill with the Great Northern, a 10-day winter festival he hopes will attract around 350,000 people to the Twin Cities.
Taking place from January 27 to February 5, the Great Northern mashes the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis, St. Paul Winter Carnival, and City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival into a 10-day period, and then sprinkles in food, drink, art, music, and other assorted events to fill in the gaps between them.
What is the Great Northern looking like so far?
By starting with [the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, Loppet, and St. Paul Winter Carnival], we really hit the ground running. It saves us years of having to build this from scratch. We are coordinating to fill in the gaps in the schedule. We want someone to be able to go to everything. We’re working on layering on a whole level of culinary programming. Andrew Zimmern is helping with that. We’ll be working on the weeklong period between the two anchor weekends, trying to find an outdoor food destination event each night. We’re working with Minneapolis and St. Paul chefs. We want art to be a piece of this, so we’re working with Northern Spark. We see the potential this year of all of the elements that can make this bigger and better. In this first year, we want to make sure that we can execute really well. We don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. Next year is the Super Bowl, and we want to be prepared for that. We really want to see this become a robust event that appeals to a wide-range of people with different interests.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, how does that affect the plans for 2018’s Great Northern?
We’re not creating this for the Super Bowl. We’re creating this for ourselves, for Minneapolis and St. Paul. It has the benefit that the timing of it lines up perfectly with the Super Bowl next year, and lot of the programming we’re organizing and creating is exactly the kind of experience the Super Bowl organizers want to deliver for the out-of-town visitors for the game. The Super Bowl will come and go, but the Great Northern is meant to live on, and we hope will be here for many, many years to come.
“Great Northern.” That name seems part and parcel with calling our region “North.”
We spent a lot of time thinking about the name. I always made it clear that this doesn’t have to have the word “North” in it. It’s more interesting now to show the North, to be the North, instead of just saying it. We’re creating a whole experience that embodies it. The idea of the North has gotten recent momentum, although you can trace it back all the way to the Minnesota state flag. Minnesota was the North long before Askov Finlayson started making the North hats. This is about creating a really great annual tradition for Minnesota. The Super Bowl is now using the slogan Bold North. It’s a clean narrative about how we talk about ourselves.
What exactly is North to you?
When I’m talking about the North, I’m referring to the events like the Loppet and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. That’s what the North is; that’s the spirit—it’s outdoor, active, year-round. We’re hearty people, we’re tough, and we’re optimistic. It’s not that the North is just winter. To me, it’s about celebrating all of the four seasons. That’s what we have to show the rest of the world: that we can take this cold, dark time of year and make it the best time of year in Minnesota. That’s about as North as it gets.
What will the Great Northern bring to Minneapolis and St. Paul?
If you look at some of the institutional partners on this—Meet Minneapolis, Visit St. Paul, Greater MSP, Explore Minnesota—we’re going to have a strong local following. Next year with the Super Bowl, we’ll be getting out-of-state visitors. I hope this eventually does become something that brings tourists from around the country, even around the globe, to Minnesota. And there’s an economic development benefit to this. We need to be able to attract outside talent to be able to drive our cities’ and state’s economy forward. I know that for a lot of the local Fortune 500 companies, winter is a hurdle. If we can use this to attract tourists, they’ll go back and tell positive stories. Now, winter is not so scary, and now maybe that person who is considering a job at General Mills or Target, or whatever it is, and thinking about moving their family here, is a little more likely to make that move because they heard that yes, it’s cold, but there’s a lot of fun things you can do.
It can be really cold here . . .
We have a long, cold winter. It’s a long time to choose to be depressed about it being winter. It really is a choice. It’s pretty much a guaranteed thing in Minnesota that every year it’s going to become winter at some point. We have a choice—are we going to go into a funk during the months and complain about it and hide inside from it, or are you going to embrace it and look at the positives and celebrate winter? That’s what events like skiing and outdoor hockey are for—this is the stuff that I look forward to. [Winter] is an important part of who we are. Let’s celebrate it. We’ve been trying to downplay our reputation of being cold but I just don’t think that works. Yes, it’s Minnesota; this is winter; it’s cold. I think it’s about embracing that instead of trying to apologize for it. People might think, ‘It’s really cold there; I don’t want to go there.’ But we should be like, ‘Yeah, that’s when you should come here.’ We’re going to change their minds. It’s not about trying to convince someone that it’s not cold here. It’s about turning it into an asset.
What’s comparable to the Great Northern nationally?
Look at South by Southwest and look at what that event has done for the city of Austin. It’s not like we’re trying to recreate South by Southwest. I don’t want to do a B-version of someone else’s A-event. I want to come up with our own A-event, and that’s what I like about doing this in the winter. This is our thing. No one else can do this. It can only happen here.
What do you imagine it’ll look like a decade from now?
I’m excited to see how it grows and what other ideas people have. I hope this is on the national or even global calendar, and that people from around the country and from around the world are coming to Minnesota, the capital of the North. This is where you have to be for those 10 days to experience winter at its best.