It’s obvious through expansion of recent economic development and cultural offerings that Fort Wayne is growing and changing. From elected officials and community leaders to concerned residents and nonprofits, there are plenty of people to thank for the recent progress.
But one organization, Visit Fort Wayne, has had a special hand in developing the city’s future.
Bringing people to the area is no new task for the Summit City’s visitors bureau. After 65 years in business through various capacities including a stint as a small department within the former Chamber of Commerce, Visit Fort Wayne has not only grown tremendously itself but also had a significant impact on the growth of the community.
According to a recent report by the Indiana Office of Tourism Department and Visit Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne and Allen County hosted more than 5.8 million visitors in 2013, which is a 4.3 percent increase since 2012.
Of course, when people visit they spend a lot of money. Last year, that totaled an estimated $545 million, of which 87 cents of every dollar spent in Allen County has stayed here.
By attracting more than double the statewide increase of only 2 percent, Fort Wayne is reaping the economic benefits of increased tourism.
Dan O’Connell, CEO and president of Visit Fort Wayne, said the organization has made huge strides in three areas.
First, Visit Fort Wayne is continuing to expand its reach through a well thought-out social media strategy taking the city’s message beyond the state lines and communicating with thousands of followers every day.
“Today, a lot of people are communicating through those channels and we have people on staff who are educated, equipped and very skilled in using social media outlets to tell our city’s story,” O’Connell said. “It’s also an interactive medium. It allows our staff to interact with visitors in real time. When they are here for a convention or when they are around town and they have questions, we are able to answer it for them instead of coming personally to the Visitors Center.”
This year, Visit Fort Wayne also launched an improved website with more functionality and responsive design.
The other area the bureau has made great strides in is sports tourism through the development of sporting competitions.
“We’ve worked very hard in the last couple of years to position Fort Wayne as one of the leading sports tourism destinations in the Midwest. We’ve had help from Spiece Fieldhouse, Memorial Coliseum, SportONE Parkview Fieldhouse and more because the community has helped build this,” O’Connell said.
The third area of growth is through group business meetings, conventions or conferences. Recent successes include the 2012 Democratic State Convention and the 2014 Indiana Republican Party State Convention.
“We have a dozen different groups we’ve been able to pull out of Indianapolis that have never been out of there before and they are coming to our city. We’ve had several national collectors that like being in a medium-sized city and we’ve been able to lure them to Fort Wayne because we are in the Midwest with affordable accommodations and superior meeting and convention halls,” O’Connell said. “The bottom line in all of that is that the economy is stronger for it. The image of our destination is stronger for it, and our hospitality is employing more people.”
For the 12 people on staff and the all-volunteer board of 20 area leaders, supporting and growing the tourism and hospitality industry are key because of jobs.
Currently, there are 8,970 jobs in this sector with more than one-third of those jobs in high-wage occupations, totaling 4.8 percent of all Allen County jobs. Tourism is Allen County’s ninth-largest employer, according to the report by the Indiana Office of Tourism Department and Visit Fort Wayne.
From jobs to the future growth of Fort Wayne, the staff at Visit Fort Wayne relies on area residents to be stewards, too, which is why it began the recent “Host Them Here” campaign.
“Host Them Here” encourages Fort Wayne residents to invite their friends and family to visit the city by providing residents with knowledgeable tips and tools to provide an exciting visit. Visit Fort Wayne hopes the program increases civic pride by empowering residents to show off their hometown.
Kristen Guthrie, director of marketing at Visit Fort Wayne, said that in any community, almost 45 percent of visitors come to see friends or family.
“We believe that residents want to be equipped to be great hosts,” Guthrie said. “We want the Fort Wayne residents to know what’s going on so they can be a good host. We want them to feel confident to take them downtown to a show at the Embassy (Theatre) or go to a TinCaps game. We don’t want people to sit at home all day. Our calendar of events is beloved by visitors but great for residents, too.”
Visit Fort Wayne also is looking to the future, and that includes riverfront development, sports tourism and creating a positive voice for the region.
“We are positive and we are upbeat, but it is a competitive business,” O’Connell said. “People have a choice of where they will go with their time, their family and spend their disposable income. There’s a method behind our madness and it does pay off. We have such good product, such good hospitality and at such a great price that we can beat cities much larger than us. It’s a worthwhile strategy. You don’t need a beach to be a successful tourist destination.”