The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 12, 2020 1:00 am

How to sell the city: As an adventure trip

Visit Fort Wayne takes that tack and says it's working

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Adventure vacations are red hot – from swimming with dolphins to cycling through wine country.

Visit Fort Wayne, the organization responsible for marketing the city as a destination, has grabbed hold of that theme with the grip of a 10-year-old taking his first zipline ride.

Dan O'Connell, Visit Fort Wayne's president and CEO, said the idea of the city as an adventure takes some travelers by surprise. But he believes the community delivers on the premise with kayaking, concerts, festivals, restaurants and, of course, the African, Indonesian and Australian areas at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.

“That's working for us,” he said of the “Adventure Awaits!” marketing campaign that has appeared in various magazines.

O'Connell has seen travel trends come and go during his 30 years leading Visit Fort Wayne. But perhaps the biggest game-changer has been the evolution of the city itself. Visit Fort Wayne, formerly known as the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau, isn't selling the same product it was 30, 20 or even 10  years ago.

In the past few years, murals have been painted on buildings in downtown alleys, a canal boat has started offering river cruises, breweries have popped up and a new park opened.

The Chicago Tribune last week posted “Best of the Midwest: 10 places to go in 2020,” an online article that included Fort Wayne as a recommended destination. The mention is accompanied by photos of Promenade Park and the annual Vera Bradley Outlet Sale. Promenade Park was also mentioned in USA Today's travel section in the fall. 

A boutique hotel is under construction at Main and Harrison streets, two new downtown residential projects are in the works, multiple restaurants are set to open on The Landing, and phases 2 and 3 of the riverfront development are in the planning stage. 

In a word, Fort Wayne is booming.

Reaching out for feedback on city

That wasn't always true, O'Connell said – in diplomatic terms.

“When I was recruited here from Illinois 30 years ago, I saw such great potential,” he said. “There was only one way to go, and that was up.”

Visit Fort Wayne's annual budget has grown from $300,000 when O'Connell started to its current $2.9 million, with 85% generated by a tax assessed on local hotel guests. The rest comes from grants, souvenir sales and advertising revenue from the annual visitors guide, maps and website, O'Connell said.

The organization has four employees in marketing, four in sales, two in administration and two in visitors' services. Its location at 927 S. Harrison St. puts the office in the midst of the development spree.

As new downtown projects open every few months, Visit Fort Wayne takes notice and tweaks its message.

Market director Kristen Guthrie said her staff surveys people who have visited Fort Wayne to learn about their experiences.

The words that pop up most often in responses – affordability, ease and adventure – are used in marketing campaigns. That way, she said, marketing messages can create realistic expectations.

But don't confuse realistic expectations with low ones.

“We're pleased that Fort Wayne does things so excellently,” Guthrie said. “The zoo? We know people are going to have an excellent time. We're pleased to recommend them.”

Jim Anderson, the zoo's executive director, serves on Visit Fort Wayne's board. The organization's efforts to attract visitors are important to the zoo, which has an annual budget of $10 million.

About 40% of the zoo's visitors live in Allen County, with the rest traveling from outside the area, Anderson said.

“We have to attract 600,000 guests a year to generate the revenue we need to pay all the bills,” he said.

Visit Fort Wayne is careful not to promote projects too soon. The boutique hotel, for example, doesn't even have walls yet, much less furnishings chosen by Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard.

Guthrie and her crew have talked about the under-construction hotel to travel writers, who work on stories months ahead of publication, but it is not yet on website list of attractions.

Using internet to attract visitors

The internet has become an important direct connection to consumers, allowing Visit Fort Wayne to market via digital and social media.

The organization used to ship 40,000 to 50,000 brochures annually to rest stops and welcome centers throughout the region, O'Connell said. That number has dropped to about 10,000 a year because so many travelers now search online.

Instead of choosing one or two photos to tell the community's story, marketing pros can post slide shows and videos of numerous Fort Wayne and Allen County attractions, Guthrie said.

The internet also allows the marketing team to target potential visitors who have specific interests, including genealogy, she said. The Allen County Public Library is home to what is widely considered the best public genealogy collection in the country.

People pursuing special interests are willing to travel farther than families just looking for a getaway that's closer to home and less expensive than Disney World, Guthrie said.

Visit Fort Wayne markets its special offerings nationwide but limits its family leisure travel campaigns to areas 50 to 300 miles from Fort Wayne. That range includes Cleveland; Chicago; Detroit; Louisville, Kentucky, and Milwaukee.

Officials also work with Grand Wayne Center and Memorial Coliseum to market the city to groups considering booking sporting events, conferences and conventions.

Last year, the city hosted six national conventions and three international ones. The same number of each is booked for 2020.

Once the venue has demonstrated the ability to host an event, selection officials want to know what else Fort Wayne has to offer visitors. O'Connell's staff is happy to answer questions.

The same goes for business owners considering opening factories or other operations.

Visit Fort Wayne works with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to encourage investment by talking about quality-of-life amenities, including trails, parks, shops and restaurants.

Upping the game

Visit Fort Wayne's strategic plan, now being updated, includes increasing staff's knowledge of the city's neighborhoods.

A family business or other attraction doesn't have to attract visitors by the thousands to be a gem worth sharing, O'Connell said. The same goes for smaller communities within Allen County. Grabill, for example, might attract those interested in learning more about the Amish.

Visit Fort Wayne also plays an important role behind the scenes.

As the staff members attend conferences in other cities – to woo travel writers or group travel planners, for example – they sometimes find out what Fort Wayne is lacking.

Competition for convention business made it clear several years ago that the Summit City needed more downtown hotel rooms, more restaurants and more evening activities.

Making such investments isn't possible for Visit Fort Wayne, so officials lobby local elected officials and economic development groups to pursue various investments. Among projects Visit Fort Wayne has championed were Parkview Field, home to the TinCaps single-A baseball team, and The Landing, a renovated restaurant district.

O'Connell described the conversations as delicate.

“We tell them, 'This isn't as good as it should be for a destination,'” he said.

Local leaders listened when the organization lobbied for lights on the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge and wayfinding signs to direct visitors to landmarks, such as the popular children's zoo.

Anderson, the zoo's executive director, said visitors aren't the only ones who benefit from new signs, parks and restaurants. They improve residents' quality of life, too.

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