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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Dan O'Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, and Kristen Guthrie, director of marketing, check out various Fort Wayne-related items at the Visit Fort Wayne headquarters downtown.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Visit Fort Wayne proud to be bunch of showoffs

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Quick facts

• In 2016, Fort Wayne hosted more than 300 conventions, tournaments, conferences and consumer shows that brought 515,000 visitors who met at 36 different venues.

• Visitor spending infuses $576 million in new money into Fort Wayne annually and pays $80.8 million in state and local taxes, which can be used for schools, roads and other expenses.

• Over 40 percent of Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and TinCaps guests are from outside Fort Wayne.

• The visitor industry sustains nearly 10,600 jobs, a third of which are in high-wage occupations with more than $230 million in paid wages and salaries to employees. Tourism is Allen County's seventh-largest employer.

• Visit Fort Wayne reaches nearly 27,000 people per day through social media, including 15,400 through Facebook.

• According to visits, Visitors Center inquiries and ad responses, visitors come to Fort Wayne from the following states: Indiana, 54 percent; Ohio, 9 percent; Illinois, 8 percent; Michigan, 7.5 percent; other, 21.5 percent.

• Visitors by trip characteristics: 3.2 people is the average typical travel party; 1.8 days is the average stay; 44.2 percent are making their first visit to Fort Wayne. Lodging guests spend $133.29 per day; those visiting friends and relatives, $70.87 per day; and day-trip visitors, $29.47 per day.

Source: Visit Fort Wayne, the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Dan O'Connell and Kristen Guthrie love playing host.

They do it on behalf of Fort Wayne. Millions of dollars are at stake.

The work they do involves its own economy: It's called tourism.

“We see ourselves as the marketing arm for the city,” said O'Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne.

Guthrie is the nonprofit organization's marketing director.

They have three key strategies to bring in tourists and money: marketing the area through contacts made at trade shows, direct sales calls and working with local organizations to attract regional, state or national events.

The strategies help Fort Wayne and Allen County welcome 5.8 million visitors and $576 million in related revenue annually, according to Visit Fort Wayne.

O'Connell or others on his staff travel to six to seven trade shows a year, mingling with people responsible for organizing events who attend the shows to learn best practices.

“We want to be there in front of those conference planners to suggest and sale them on bringing their conference to Fort Wayne,” Guthrie said.

Direct sales contacts also bring some successes, along with working with local organizations to develop what O'Connell calls “bid booklets” to host larger groups.

“We do that on almost a daily basis, or certainly a weekly basis,” he said.

O'Connell proudly refers to a website that provides a snapshot of events, such as theater productions and conventions, that visitors to Fort Wayne – or local residents – might be interested in. Visitors to the site can sign up for an email newsletter.

Fort Wayne often competes to land major events with cities including Toledo; Grand Rapids and Lansing, Michigan; Peoria and Rockford, Illinois; Lexington, Louisville and Elizabethtown, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin.

“Four or five of the cities we compete with are state capitals,” O'Connell said. “We're in good competition with some very good places.”

With sizable venues including Memorial Coliseum, Grand Wayne Convention Center with its connections to downtown hotels, and Turnstone's Plassman Athletic Center, Fort Wayne is competitive when bidding for sports-related events. Those represent about 60 percent of the events that get attracted to Fort Wayne, O'Connell said.

About 30 percent of events are related to meetings and conventions, ranging from Scrabble to Farm Bureau activities, he said. The remaining 10 percent are exhibitions or sizable shows, such as the annual Farm Show the Coliseum hosts in January.

Sports events can bring large numbers, but particularly when youth are involved, the gatherings may result in three or four people sharing the same hotel room.

Conventions might use higher-end hotel properties and have attendees who dine out at comparable restaurants. “It's a much bigger dime, if you will,” O'Connell said.

Like many organizations, O'Connell said he wishes Visit Fort Wayne had more financial resources. That's why he supports an increase in the room tax, which could generate more additional money for marketing if the state legislature approved it. A 501(c)3 foundation, Visit Fort Wayne Foundation, was established last year to help educate people about the value of tourism.

The Allen County Public Library is already known for its Genealogy Center, but O'Connell sees potential to increase marketing of its research capabilities, among other amenities. He's excited about the future potential as the riverfront gets developed within the next five years with more attractions.

But within existing resources, Visit Fort Wayne is already having an impact, said Mike Nutter, president of the TinCaps, the local minor league baseball team.

“It's really great what they do in terms of getting people to show off the city,” Nutter said.

Some visitors like to schedule events when the TinCaps have games at the downtown Parkview Field. Others, he said, like to schedule when games aren't booked for the stadium because the venue can host an event catering to their group.

Attendance for the TinCaps in 2016 was 413,701. Other activities at Parkview Field, such as Fort4Fitness and a Philharmonic concert around the July 4 holiday, attracted 147,513 additional visitors, Nutter said.

The TinCaps have a marketing strategy, but the support Visit Fort Wayne provides to increase interest in the area is valuable.

“I think they have done an amazing job,” Nutter said.