Everybody’s an ambassador

February 27th, 2019

By Kate Virag for The Journal Gazette

Recently, I hosted a dinner at a local restaurant with business guests from Colorado.

The server asked the table, “Have you dined with us before?”

My guests shared that they were visiting from Denver.

After hearing this, our server exclaimed, “Denver's such a great city! What are you doing here?”

This exchange was counterproductive. The purpose of the trip was to show my guests the incredible opportunities, quality of life and regional pride in northeast Indiana. Before dinner, we had visited companies and attractions throughout the region to learn about northeast Indiana's momentum from business and community leaders.

While my guests were very impressed with those they met during the formal agenda portion of their visit, in many ways, the impressions they took away from unplanned, spontaneous interactions were even more important.

When visitors to our community meet residents in organic settings – at restaurants, sporting events and concerts – they know they are hearing authentic, off-the-cuff opinions about work and life in this community.

Visitors might learn about the “hidden gems” in our community from the person beside them at a Trine University hockey game. Someone interviewing for a job in our community might strike up a conversation with a bartender at the Hoppy Gnome and hear about Fort Wayne's newest hot spots.

Or they might hear residents complain about amenities they think our community lacks, apologetically saying, “I'm sorry you had to come here” or “it's getting better.”

Our Hoosier humility. It runs deep, and in many ways, I love it. It makes me proud to see how we work together as a community, often not worrying about titles, status or other formalities. We get the work done. Sometimes our humility is a challenge.

We often struggle to promote our community to family, friends and business contacts in other places because it seems boastful or disingenuous.

I believe there's also an “underdog” mentality at play here. You can call it a “make fun of yourself first” approach. Many of us who grew up here have a harder time seeing how truly great this region is and the transformation taking place before our eyes.

Today, it is more important than ever to promote our community to others.

Northeast Indiana is experiencing record low unemployment rates and a workforce shortage. We must entice talented, skilled people outside of our region to move here to grow our regional population and allow our businesses and communities to thrive.

Embracing the pride we have for the place we have chosen to live is important, and regional pride plays a huge role in the retention and attraction of key talent.

Development Counsellors International specializes in economic development and travel marketing. DCI surveyed more than 1,000 working individuals around the country for a 2017 report, “Talent Wars,” to understand what people look for in a job and a community. The report noted, “U.S. workers are actively searching for new employment opportunities at least a few times per year. Nearly 30 percent report searching on a daily or weekly basis.”

Additionally, nearly half of survey respondents stated that they would be somewhat or extremely likely to relocate for a new job opportunity in the next five years.

DCI also shared the top five sources of information that people use in forming impressions of communities: first-hand experience, word of mouth, internet research, social media and media coverage.

What does this mean for northeast Indiana? It means that many people form opinions about life in our community through digital and in-person interactions with people who already live here.

If we as residents act as ambassadors for our communities, authentically sharing good news and positive stories about life here, it will ultimately affect the external perception of this region.

Whether we have lived here for our entire lives or for one week, something drew us here and keeps us here.

In recent discussions with nearly 100 northeast Indiana residents, it was clear to me that while our communities are not perfect, we choose to live here and we have a fierce pride for our hometowns.

My challenge to my fellow residents is simple. Let's put aside our humility and embrace our role as advocates for northeast Indiana. Instead of being apologetic, become an ambassador. The next time I host guests from Denver, I hope they'll be greeted warmly and told to enjoy their visit because this is a truly special place full of opportunities and an amazing quality of life.

Kate Virag is the vice president of marketing and strategic communications for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.