If you’re active on social media in Fort Wayne, you’ve probably seen the headlines.
Travel writers from blogs and national publications like USA Today are dubbing the city “full of tasty food and family fun.”
Once known only to the national stage on the wrong side of jokes in "Parks and Recreation" or in late-night quips about Harry Baals (the former mayor, of course), it’s inspiring to see Fort Wayne starting to get some positive national press.
But it does beg the question: How are travel writers finding out about Fort Wayne in the first place?
Blogger Abigail Hake Kellermeyer of Indianapolis snaps a photo during a travel writers tour of Promenade Park.
Those of us who have lived in northeast Indiana the last five to 10 years have no doubt seen the advancements in local culture firsthand. But what does it take to break into the national stream of consciousness?
If you ask Kristen Gutherie, Director of Marketing at Visit Fort Wayne, it’s no small feat. Instead, getting the attention of travel writers and bloggers takes a concerted effort on the part of her team—in coordination with many others around town.
Jessa Campbell, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Visit Fort Wayne, actually goes to national travel writers conferences to woo them with gifts and goodies and help them put Fort Wayne on their list of must-see places.
In the last few years, Campbell says it’s been easier to get writers to come to the Summit City, especially with new attractions like the riverfront Promenade Park to show off. Many writers who visited the city five or more years ago are eager to come back and see the progress firsthand.
“The number one thing we say is, ‘When you come to Fort Wayne, you’ll have an experience that nothing we say can express it,’” Campbell says. “You’ll just get it.”
So do travel writers who come to Fort Wayne have that perception-changing experience? And if so, what do they see and do while they’re in town?
I went on an official travel writers tour with Visit Fort Wayne to find out.
Megan Butler of Riverfront Fort Wayne, center, leads the travel writers through the park.
We were instructed to meet at the large, white “Convergence” sculpture by Linda Howard at Promenade Park at 10 a.m. on a Friday to begin our tour. It was a bright and sunny morning in the mid-70s with clear blue skies and all types of residents roaming the new waterfront park.
From the looks of it, the city was already selling itself, and Visit Fort Wayne reps hadn’t even arrived yet.
Once everyone showed up, we made a circle and did our introductions. On this tour, we had mostly regional travel writers. There was Abigail Hake Kellermeyer of Indianapolis who writes a blog called Little Miss Martha; Katie Scott of Logansport, Indiana, who writes Chasing Vibrance; Trisha Brand of Indianapolis who contributes to Indy’s Child, the Cincinnati Parent, and the Dayton Parent; and Dannelle Gay of the Madison area of Wisconsin, who runs a blog called Operation40k and is also writing a series of family-friendly travel books by state.
Travel writer Katie Scott of Logansport and her husband test the new swings in Promenade Park.
Since most of the writers on this tour are family- and kid-oriented, it means affordable, family attractions like Promenade Park will be a large focus of the day.
As we tour the park with Megan Butler of Riverfront Fort Wayne, we learn about its history and future. Promenade Park, which celebrated its Grand Opening in August, is only phase one of three total phases of riverfront development. The next two phases are currently in the design stages, Butler says, so there’s plenty of opportunities for travel writers to come back. Hint, hint.
And for many of the writers from nearby Indiana cities, coming back to Fort Wayne is something they’re likely to do.
Megan Butler of Riverfront Fort Wayne, right, leads the tour group across the river.
Kellermeyer and Scott both have family in the Fort Wayne area, so a big reason they are interested in touring the city is to see what they can do on their next family visit.
“I grew up here, and I was at an event in Indy last night, saying, ‘We never get to go home and just explore Fort Wayne,” Kellermeyer says. “There so much to do in the city now; we moved to Indy 10 years ago, and it’s a lot different here now.”
Scott says a big draw for her is seeing how Fort Wayne is developing more regional attractions similar to larger cities around the nation. She went to college near Greensville, South Carolina, which has a walkable riverfront park near its downtown. She’s excited to tell her readers that they can find a similar experience only a short drive away in Fort Wayne.
“A lot of the readers of my blog are actively looking to find unique date nights,” she says. “I love that this is family-friendly, but also good for dates. We often get in a rut of dinner-and-a-movie dates, but it’s great to find something different.”
The children of travel writers play in the water features at Promenade Park.
Scott says the fact that Fort Wayne has opportunities to be immersed in nature near its downtown is a big draw, too.
“We love to be outside, and I feel like this is a good combination,” she says. “You can be outdoors on the trails or at the riverfront, but you’re not far from the city, so you can quickly get something to eat.”
While locals in Fort Wayne might not consider their city a “hot spot” for regional travelers, Brand, who writes for multiple travel blogs in the Midwest, begs to differ. She says the Summit City is actually quite popular among her readers.
“Fort Wayne is a big destination for us,” she says. “I teased out through a few of our loyal readers that I was coming to the riverfront, and they’re like, ‘We can’t wait. We need something beyond the zoo to do with our families in Fort Wayne.’”
Brand says her readers are often into quick trip ideas and free experiences that are off the beaten path. While her articles sometimes feature a city’s well-known attractions, like its museums and zoos, she likes to add more up-and-coming, authentic local experiences to the mix, too.
“You can only spend so much time at a zoo,” Brand says. “I like to sprinkle in culture in whatever we do. I lived 10 years in big cities, so that’s what I crave. I try to find family-friendly experiences that have culture to them.”
She believes that she’s found that experience in downtown Fort Wayne. While she admits that she hasn’t been to Fort Wayne in about eight years now, she says she was excited to see shots of the new riverfront park on Instagram, and it piqued her interest to revisit the city.
After touring and Instagramming their own shots of Promenade Park, the travel writers are off to a whole lineup of experiences, including lunch on the riverfront at Trubble Riverside Café + Tap, kayaking and biking at Fort Wayne Outfitters, a visit to DeBrand Fine Chocolates downtown, and a series of Fort Wayne Arts tours.
Gutherie says Visit Fort Wayne likes to offer travel writers a good mix of planned experiences as well as time to explore the city on their own terms.
In the case of the USA Today writer who visited earlier this year, Gutherie says she actually came to Fort Wayne for a different reason altogether, and she ended up pitching a story USA Today because she was so impressed by the city during her stay.
“While she was here, her experience grew to the point that she said, ‘We have to pitch this to USA Today. This is a bigger story than I realized; it’s a bigger, better city than I realized,’” Gutherie paraphrases.
The overall goal is to help more travel writers have that perception-changing experience of being in Fort Wayne, and so far, it appears to be working.
“This is so cool,” Brand says, looking out at the city skyline from Promenade Park. “It really has changed. I’m feeling it.”