Faces of Duluth: Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith paddle boarding

Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems and everything in between. Traveling to Duluth? Learn the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.

When you think of Duluth, you likely think of Lake Superior and outdoor recreation. Vista Feet and Zenith Adventure are the local attractions specializing in exactly that! As Vista Fleet gears up to set sail on their 65th year, we sat down with General Manager of both, Colleen Smith, to get an inside look at the iconic attractions and her own adventure within them.

What’s your Duluth story?

I moved to Duluth from the Twin Cities (Fridley specifically) in 2009 to attend college at UMD. I ended up falling head over heels in love with the town, especially Lake Superior, and after graduating, decided to stay. When I was in college I studied abroad in Ireland, and while in Ireland, one of the most beautiful places in the world, I genuinely missed Duluth. That was a huge indication to me that this place had become home and where my heart was.

How did you get started with Vista Fleet and Zenith Adventure?  How long have you been in your current role?

I started off at Vista Fleet as a seasonal deckhand in 2016 when I was hired to oversee events and dining on board the cruises. That same season I fell into the role of Sales and Events Coordinator, which became a full time/year-round position. From there I took over as the Assistant General Manager in 2019, and was quickly promoted to General Manager the following year, the position that I currently hold. This year is my 8th year/9th season with the company, and I could not be more thrilled on where this adventure has taken me.

How are Vista Fleet and Zenith Adventure connected?

Vista Fleet and Zenith Adventure are sister companies. Both brands are owned and operated by the same team of passionate leaders, and the goal of our organization is to foster the spirit of adventure. Zenith Adventure is located across from the Vista Fleet dock at 323 Harbor Drive and sells Vista Fleet cruise tickets as an excursion offering inside the space.

When did Vista Fleet and Zenith Adventure open?

Vista Fleet has been operating out of the Twin Ports harbor since 1959, making this year our 65th season in operation!

In 2021, our team decided to rebrand the ‘Vista Fleet Gift Shop’ to create a hub to connect travelers and locals to the outdoors through unique tour experiences and curated retail that supports this mission and Zenith Adventure was born. With our team of outdoor enthusiasts, we developed new guided tour experiences through paddling and hiking that launch right from our storefront. We brought in quality retail brands that we were excited about, featuring apparel and gear that support adventures in the Northland and up the North Shore.

What kinds of services/tours do Vista Fleet and Zenith Adventure offer?

Vista Fleet is Lake Superior’s locally owned original attraction that offers daily sightseeing, dining, live music, family fun and cocktail cruises. We also offer private charters, such as weddings, rehearsal dinners and corporate events, for unforgettable events ON the water. We are Duluth’s only floating events center. We have two vessels in our fleet, the Vista Star and the Vista Queen, and there is always something going on!

Zenith Adventure offers high-quality retail to help turn everyday into an outdoor adventure. Adventure offerings include Guided Harbor Kayak Voyages, Paddleboard/Paddleship Rentals, Guided Sunrise Paddle Tours, Guided Hikes and a Historic Maritime Walking Tour.

What is a typical day like for you managing these two attractions?

One of the best parts about managing these two attractions is that there is no typical day – every day is new and different.  I have a background in theater, specifically Stage Management, so I see each day, each excursion, each event, as a mini production. This job is definitely the strangest job I have ever had, and I mean that in the best way possible. For me, there is a heavy emphasis on the “general” in General Manager where there really is not anything that is not a part of my job – from stepping out of the office to help with line handling on the boat, filling in as a crew member, officiating a wedding, hopping on a paddle board to lead a news crew out for a story – I am happy to do it all. My passion lies with working with and serving people – every day, every season there are new visitors, new crew, new challenges.  Having the opportunity to lead and manage on a daily basis truly fills my cup. Our leadership team is given a lot of freedom to create and make decisions by our owners and I do my best to instill this autonomy and enthusiasm to our own crew by leading by example. I truly believe in the experiences we are creating and I love to be able to see visitors experience our excursions and events – it is a full circle thing!

What advice or insider tips do you have for travelers looking to book a cruise or an excursion with Vista Fleet/Zenith Adventure?

Book early! We never want to disappoint anyone by having a cruise or other excursion sell out that you had your heart set on. We encourage everyone to book once they know their plans and are comfortable doing so. We also encourage our visitors to be open to weather – Duluth is beautiful in all seasons, and that is part of the fun of the experience, being fully immersed in what Duluth has to offer, including weather!

What do you enjoy about the outdoor recreation community in Duluth?

The thing I love the most about the outdoor recreation community in Duluth is the inclusivity. There has been a huge focus on accessibility for all when it comes to outdoor recreation. This is something that we have really leaned into with Zenith Adventure specifically, encouraging people of all skill levels to try something new with the help of our guides that they may not feel comfortable enough to do on their own. For us, it’s creating a safe and inviting environment for everyone to step outside of their own comfort zone.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Duluth with guests from out of town?

I tell you what – this feels like a shameless plug but it is honestly not – one of my new favorite things to do is bring people out on a paddleboard in the Harbor. It’s truly such a unique, incredible experience – especially if you head out for sunrise paddle.  Back in 2021, our Marketing Director, our Adventure Specialist and myself strapped into wet suits and headed out on the maiden-voyage as the test guinea pigs for our Sunrise Paddle Tours. It was literally the first time I had ever been on a paddleboard in my life, and now I absolutely love it. It is such a unique experience to enjoy the sunrise from a perspective that not a lot of people get to. Afterwards, brunch is a much-earned necessity. My favorite brunch stop is Duluth Grill.   Duluth’s live music scene is one of my absolute pastimes as well, so I love introducing my visitors to a local watering hole and some good music to end the day!

Posted on May 13, 2024