KEVIN LEININGER: Plan is in place for use of hotel-tax increase; will 1 million new visitors follow?

Nearly 600 athletes and 40 countries visited Fort Wayne in June for the International Blind Sports Federation Goalball and Judo Paralympic Qualifiers. Visit Fort Wayne hopes to use an increase in the local hotel tax to attract more such adaptive sports events. (Photo courtesy Visit Fort Wayne)
Dan O'Connell
Kevin Leininger

When Visit Fort Wayne CEO Dan O’Connell gives his annual report to members of city and county councils next week, it’s a good bet he’ll be asked to explain how his organization plans to spend the extra $750,000 the recent 1 percent increase in the hotel tax is expected to generate every year.

If so, O’Connell is prepared to roll out a strategy designed to increase local tourism by 1 million people within five years — a strategy that will employ new tactics and technologies to promote new realities.

Thirty years ago, Visit Fort Wayne might have created brochures to market such things as the Children’s Zoo, the genealogy collection at the Allen County Public Library and a handful of other attractions. Today, the addition of an expanded library, Grand Wayne Center and Memorial Coliseum, redeveloped riverfront, new hotels and sports venues are attracting 6.5 million visitors annually, with the potential for more.

It’s O’Connell’s job to maximize that potential, and here’s how he plans to do it:

First, he’ll target those 1 million new visitors by working to attract more national conventions to the Grand Wayne. With two new downtown hotels now open and a third under construction, the typical convention size of 400 to 800 people could nearly double. Visit Fort Wayne will also seek more “adaptive” sporting events for participants with disabilities, an effort bolstered by the presence of the Turnstone Fieldhouse. Efforts to market the genealogy center will increase, as will efforts to attract more visitors during the slower fall and spring periods.

To that end, Visit Fort Wayne will send sales teams to Chicago, Indianapolis, Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C. and will be represented at five additional national tradeshows. It will hire a consultant to identify groups that match Fort Wayne’s facilities. The local advertising firm of One Lucky Guitar will promote the library’s genealogy section and, in anticipation of the tax increase, Visit Fort Wayne had already added a marketing employee.

And although Visit Fort Wayne still uses print marketing — thanks for that! — it also promotes Fort Wayne in other television markets and, perhaps most important, will expand its presence on a variety of social media platforms and by working with such relatively new opportunities as Air BnB, Uber and Lyft.

Thanks to all of this and more, Visit Fort Wayne anticipates 2020 expenses of about $2.91 million, up from $2.72 million this year. Revenues — which include no subsidies from city and county government — are expected to increase from about $2.2 million this year to nearly $2.9 million.

The hotel tax increase took effect Nov. 1, meaning it’s too early to know whether the revenue predictions will prove accurate. Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism: The tax revenues were on the rise even before County Council narrowly approved the increase this summer, jumping from $4.36 million in 2014 to more than $6 million last year. O’Connell knows the strong economy can’t last forever, which is why he considers it important to increase the tax now, when the market can absorb it.

The importance of tourism to the local economy justifies council’s vote. According to Visit Fort Wayne, visitors spend $741.6 million annually, sustaining about 14,200 jobs and generating about $94.3 million in state and local taxes. The city, usually with the help of local taxpayers, has invested millions of dollars in facilities designed to enhance the “quality of life” in Fort Wayne. It would be shortsighted indeed to have done all that without exposing the positive changes to a wider and potentially more lucrative audience.

That attempt, which O’Connell calls “destination marketing,” will expose this city’s name and attractions to people who couldn’t tell Fort Wayne from Fort Worth. Allen County currently ranks fourth among Indiana’s 92 counties for tourism spending, and tourism is the county’s seventh-largest employer. O’Connell aims to improve both numbers.

And why not? When you have a good story to tell — and Fort Wayne clearly does — you should want as many people as possible to hear it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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