Just before the bus was about to depart, two women hustled across the parking lot of the AmericInn in Waconia.
“Do we have time to freshen up?” asked a breathless Laura Menard, who, with her co-worker Mary Nye, had driven all night from Michigan to make it to the inaugural run of a Prince-themed bus tour of the Twin Cities area.
The women, the only two paid patrons on the tour, hauled a tote with 19 Prince CDs and a plastic-wrapped painting onto the bus. The painting, made by a friend, depicted a teardrop, lips, stars, paisley print and a dove, all in varying hues of purple. Their intention: to hang it on the gates of Paisley Park in Chanhassen, an integral stop on their Prince pilgrimage.
Facilitating that pilgrimage was tour operator Randy Luedtke, who had purchased the 14-passenger vehicle only two days earlier.
The owner of WaconiaVille Tours, Luedtke usually shuttles guests between wineries in the countryside southwest of Minneapolis. But soon after Prince’s death, he had another idea for a tourism opportunity centered around the late hometown icon.
Luedtke may be the first tour operator to unlock the potential of Prince’s draw, but his is not the first local business to reach for a slice of the purple pie in the few short weeks since the star’s death. The calendar of tribute shows and dance parties continues to grow; the Prince displays in local record stores are constantly being restocked; everything from purple bagels to purple wine is still being marketed to fans.
And while devotees have long flocked here to walk in Prince’s footsteps — and with luck catch a glimpse of him around town — a renewed interest in Prince’s ties to Minnesota since his death has created opportunities for a burgeoning segment of local tourism.
“People now see Minneapolis as a place where they want to come and pay respects to his memory,” said Kristen Montag, spokeswoman for Meet Minneapolis, the city’s marketing and tourism agency.
Shortly after Prince’s death, Meet Minneapolis launched a web page with information about several Prince-related locales in the city. In just over a month, it’s had 12,000 views. “This is definitely something people are looking for,” Montag said.
For now, local tourism bureaus are simply steering Prince fans to places of interest through online resources; they offer no official tours or merchandise of their own. Explore Minnesota, the state office, has also posted a self-guided Prince tour online.
But with murmurs that Paisley Park could one day be opened to visitors, tourism officials are keeping an eye on future possibilities.
“I think it would be huge,” said Erica Wacker, spokeswoman for Explore Minnesota. “We’re just keeping up with how it evolves.”
A permanent Prince museum at Paisley Park could have an astronomical impact on local tourism, as it did in Memphis when Elvis Presley’s estate opened Graceland, his home, to visitors. But until then, Prince’s stature alone could be enough to give the Twin Cities area an immediate boost.
“When people can affiliate a destination with a personality, it tends to give the destination a little bit more meaning, and certainly a tie,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis’ tourism bureau. “What megastar entertainers can do for their hometowns is pretty powerful.”
Graceland opened in 1982, and recently saw its 20 millionth ticketed visitor pass through the King’s mansion. It’s safe to say many of those visitors spent time and money elsewhere in Memphis, contributing to what Kane calls “the Elvis economy.”
“Elvis is clearly the bedrock and the foundation of everything that we do when it comes to our cultural tourism economy,” he said. “Minneapolis has a lot to reap in a positive way from the Prince-Minneapolis connection.”
Making a celebrity attraction
Some Minnesotans have questioned the tact of benefiting from Prince’s passing. T-shirt sellers who stationed themselves outside Paisley Park in the days after his death were quickly sent away. Tourism officials are wary not to make the same mistake.
“We were very careful when we put out information on our website, because we didn’t want people to think we were capitalizing on a death,” Montag said. “We’re not going to go out there and start selling stuff with his name on it just to make money.”
For any celebrity attraction to survive long-term, “they need to do it in a respectful manner,” said Cynthia Messer, extension professor at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center. “It’s not simply taking advantage of Prince’s celebrity, but truly telling the story of Prince.”
That may be why it took five years to open Graceland after Elvis’ death in 1977. “The important thing is the right time,” Kane said. “I think there was a carefulness not to make it look like something that was just a money thing.”
Luedtke, the tour guide, wondered if he was launching his venture too soon. “I really battled, I really struggled with the sensitivity and the timing of it all, but then my wife and I prayed about it.” Ultimately, he decided to introduce the $99 tour. “I’m a marketing guy. I just thought, ‘Why not us?’ We can do this well.’ ”
The 55-year-old former wedding DJ used to spin Prince’s music back in the mid-1980s. Today, wearing a purple dress shirt and paisley vest, he was playing Prince’s greatest hits quietly on shuffle in the bus, which he steered, without much narration, past a handful of Prince’s old haunts.
Attendees disembarked to take selfies at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, where Prince played his first solo show; in front of the now-gold star on the wall of First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, and inside the Electric Fetus record store in south Minneapolis, where Prince shopped just days before his death.
The bus also made a quick stop at the house featured in “Purple Rain,” which Luedtke mistakenly told his guests was also a onetime home of Prince. Another misfire: a drive past Lake Nokomis, which he identified, incorrectly, as the stand-in for the purifying “waters of Lake Minnetonka” featured in one of the film’s famous scenes. (It was actually the Minnesota River, said Wacker, of Explore Minnesota.) Where did Luedtke do his research? “Online, Wikipedia, watching ‘Purple Rain,’ ” he said.
Purple Reign and Paisley Park
The last stop on the tour was at Sovereign Estate winery in Waconia, for a toast to Prince with a Marquette pinot noir hybrid, now dubbed Purple Reign. That wine was always on the menu here, but after Prince’s death, the label changed color to — you guessed it — purple.
The connection made sense to winery owner Teresa Savaryn. “Wine is a very sensual thing,” she said. “Prince was a very sensual person.”
It also made sense to Menard and Nye, who had driven from Escanaba, Mich., to hang their painting at Paisley Park, the tour’s penultimate stop. In the rain, they walked the length of the fence to find the perfect place for their purple masterpiece.
They finally spotted an open stretch of chain link that looked right. They hung it and stood back.
“It’s nice, and it’s sad at the same time,” said Nye, gazing at the rectangle of canvas hanging in front of the blocky white compound. Then she started to cry.
Menard embraced Nye, with whom she’d been listening to nothing but Prince during breaks at their hospital job, cleaning rooms that have been contaminated with hazardous materials. Nye sniffled into a tissue Menard handed her. Both women stepped back, and looked one last time at their little contribution to the home of a legend.
“Oh, god,” said Nye, “let’s have some wine.”