Tourism interlocks with economic development to drive growth

August 14th, 2015

News Coverage:

Tourism interlocks with economic development to drive growth

Posted: Friday, August 14, 2015 12:00 am

By Aimee Ambrose

Terms like "quality of life" and "quality of place" spell out a recent shift in strategies to improve northeast Indianas economy by marketing the region to millennials.

As the largest generation now in the United States, millennials - the demographic of approximately 18-34-year-olds that make up about a third of the nation - possess important qualities as entrepreneurs, workers and consumers for pumping new life into communities.

Attracting them requires tailoring a message to their tastes and trends, which includes selling a city as a great place to live as much as selling it as a great place to work.

That's where tourism or, more officially, destination marketing comes in as a key economic development tool.

"We are the welcome mat for economic development," said Carrie Lambert, executive director of the Indiana Tourism Association. "We have to be showcasing all these wonderful things that our residents can enjoy and tourists alike, and that's how we're going to get the businesses. That's how we're going to get the talent."

Destination marketing and economic development organizations both have different missions for growing an area's economy. Economic development focuses on attracting businesses, while tourism groups attract people on a more temporary basis.

However, the functions interlock like gears in an economic engine, according to Dan O'Connell's analogy.

"Economic development tries to grow the engine size of our community" said O'Connell, CEO of Visit Fort Wayne. "We're more like the oil to the engine. We're more like the fluids."

Those “fluids,” he pointed out, consist of circulating visitors through attractions like convention spaces, entertainment venues, cultural sites and other amenities.

Promoting local attributes gives people opportunities to see that community's value. That could help draw in new residents and visitors, which could help lead to new attractions and events. Simultaneously, a growing population means an increase in skilled and talented workers, which encourages businesses to invest in a community.

"Talent attraction often starts with tourism," said Courtney Tritch, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership's vice president of marketing. "Perception is very important to people wanting to live here, talent wanting to move here and businesses wanting to move here. People want to have a good time ...People want to do things that are fun and interesting."

To her, that rings true for everyone, whether they're a visiting consumer or a traveling company executive.

O'Connell agrees.

"Nobody ever moves a company or their investment to a community unless they've visited it first," he said.

So far, year-to-date, more than 50 conventions were held or are scheduled to be held in Fort Wayne in 2015, and venues are still booking events, said Megan Flohr, a spokeswoman for Visit Fort Wayne. By comparison, the city had about 45 conventions in 2014.

Visit Fort Wayne also generated 34 leads so far this year. Of them, she said, four were repeats, the other 30 were new leads.

Talent attraction and retention is the most critical economic development issue in the state, Tritch said. It's central to the partnership's Vision 2020 initiative for increasing northeast Indiana's population and economy.

Millennials are the primary target to attract.

They tend to give nearly equal weight to a community's economic prospects and its living qualities when considering whether to live there.

"They're not deciding where to go based on a job, they're deciding where to go based on where they want to live," Lambert said.

A majority of millennials surveyed, 83 percent, ranked living expenses as the most important factor in choosing a place to live, according to a report by the American Planning Association in May 2014. The nonprofit organization serves urban planning professionals. The second most important factor was the local economy, followed by metro features and health.

Employment prospects, though, are dealmakers, as 27 percent of millennials see jobs as the overriding factor in their decision, the study shows. Quality of life was a close second with 18 percent ranking it as their deciding factor, followed by relationships and overall economic health. Another 20 percent found all the factors equally important.

The generation's preferences mean tourism organizations have greater roles in selling communities by showcasing attractions, and they must also work closer with economic development groups.

"It's a natural symbiotic relationship that should exist in every community," said Andrew Levine, president of Development Counselors International. The New York City-based firm specializes in traveling and economic development marketing.

Such collaboration already exists in northeast Indiana.

Visit Fort Wayne works with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Regional Partnership on community development projects, O'Connell noted. Visit Fort Wayne and Greater Fort Wayne have leadership crossovers as well, with members of both organizations serving on the others' boards.

Collaboration is also present on a regional scale with initiatives like Vision 2020 and last year's "Our Story Project,"; where economic development and tourism agencies in northeast Indiana worked together to develop common and consistent marketing themes for the region.

But much of Indiana still has to let go of an almost self-deprecating attitude about what the state has to offer, Lambert said.

"It's ingrained in the very essence of who we are that we are not braggy and we';re not showy, and there can be a lot of great things about that," she said of Hoosiers. "But we also need to be proud and not be ashamed to recognize what we do have and where the strengths are."

She believes residents can do their part for tourism by acting as ambassadors for their communities and supporting their unique attributes.