Q&A with Visit Fort Wayne: How is COVID-19 hitting the hospitality industry?

Fort Wayne’s hospitality industry provides a huge source of revenue for the city—from hotel stays to concerts and events, to all of the shopping and dining experiences in between.

So when COVID-19 hit the city, canceling events and keeping visitors at bay, it hit hard.

For instance, Fort Wayne was scheduled to host the 2020 NCAA DI Women’s Basketball Regional, March 28-30, with a projected economic impact of $1.2 million.

When the tournament was canceled, it wasn’t the city’s only setback, says Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Visit Fort Wayne, Kristen Guthrie.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Guthrie and Jessica Campbell, Marketing and Communications Manager at Visit Fort Wayne, to find out how the city’s hospitality industry is faring.

Visit Fort Wayne's downtown office busy with tourists.

IFW: COVID-19 is shaking up the local hospitality industry. How is this impacting your work at Visit Fort Wayne?

KG: It’s really challenging because our whole job is to promote that people visit Fort Wayne, and this is not the time to do that. For the first time ever, we’re saying: Don’t visit Fort Wayne right now.

We’ve talked to our colleagues at visitors bureaus around the country, and we’re all thinking: Safety first. We're just doing what we need to do during this time.

IFW: Now that you’re not promoting visits, what are you up to?

KG: A lot of our work has been providing resources to local residents. We’ve been glad to help compile and promote restaurants offering carry out and attractions offering virtual experiences. It’s been great to talk to residents, and we’re able to do that now more than usual. We are also certainly planning for the future, ready to promote visiting Fort Wayne this summer, as soon as we are able. We want to be totally ready to invite our visitors back.

JC: That involves working on projects we had already planned for this spring and summer. Some launch dates have been pushed back, but we’re preparing as much as we can and waiting to release these projects as soon as possible.

IFW: You work closely with national travel writers to share Fort Wayne’s story. How is COVID-19 changing the way you interact with the press?

KG: Overall, we’re still working with writers, but just changing what the story might look like.

We had a writer who was in Fort Wayne last summer, and she wants to do a story on why to visit Fort Wayne again this summer. She’s just going to feature a lot more outdoor content this year.

The article won’t be published until July, so we’re hoping things will be more back to normal by then, but to be safe, a lot of travel writers are looking at things from a new lens now.

As this writer has been working on her story, she’s even said that she thinks her article is going to be better as a result. The challenge of featuring outdoor spaces has forced her to think creatively.

On our end, we’ve had a lot of writers scheduled to tour Fort Wayne in May, so all of those visits have been moved. But overall, we’re looking at this experience as a good opportunity to tell different types of stories about Fort Wayne.

A group of travel writers tour the downtown Fort Wayne riverfront and Promenade Park.

IFW: Conventions and large events have been hit hard by COVID-19 cancelations. Tell us about that.

KG: The impact on conventions and events has been huge. It was so unfortunate that we couldn’t host the NCAA tournament this year. We also had to cancel several big events in March and April. So we’re working hard with the Grand Wayne Center to reschedule as many of those events as we can. They bring such a critical economic impact to Fort Wayne. We’re hoping most can reschedule.

I’ve noticed that the Embassy Theatre and the Coliseum have done an excellent job of rescheduling a lot of their concerts, so people don’t lose their money on tickets.

Every time I see a reschedule, that’s a positive thing for my heart to know that we can still enjoy these events and our community will still reap the economic benefits—just on a delay.

IFW: We’ve heard a lot about the impact of COVID-19 on the service industry, but one of the often-overlooked aspects is the impact its had on Fort Wayne’s hotels and their staff. Tell us about that.

JC: At Visit Fort Wayne, we work closely with many of the area’s hotels and a lot of our hotel partners are really hurting right now. While most of our restaurants and small businesses can still interact with their customers in some way, through carryout service, gift cards, or online orders, these hotels are really having a hard time finding ways to engage with the public at all right now.

One hotel said they lost 70 percent of their workforce overnight, so that’s really scary. These workers are people in our community who don’t have jobs now.

When people think about hotels, they might think of big corporate chains, but many of them are locally owned and their workers are local people. They’re the ones welcoming our visitors to the city, and so many of them are laid off right now. They need help just as much as everyone else does.

KG: A lot of these hotels are looking at how they can be used to help others during this time, too. Their occupancy is at an all-time low, but they can house essential workers like healthcare professionals from other cities, families relocating to the area, or people who are displaced from their homes.

We love seeing how people are embracing local restaurants and small businesses during COVID-19. This is another aspect of the hospitality industry that is really hurting.

JC: If you have friends coming to visit Fort Wayne after COVID-19, encourage them to show some love to our local hotels.

IFW: Looking to the future, how will COVID-19 affect your work at Visit Fort Wayne going forward?

KG: Things in the travel industry are changing and pivoting. A couple of travel writers have asked us about doing "micro-cations," and I think that’s going to be a new industry buzzword you start hearing a lot. Micro-cations are quick trips within a close distance of home.

After COVID-19, a lot of people might not be up to doing a big cross-country trip, but they still want a fun weekend getaway, and micro-cations are something Fort Wayne can offer people in the Midwest.

That’s how things are shifting a little bit; we’re looking forward to inviting people in our neighboring cities and states to still have a getaway this summer and to come to Fort Wayne. I think it will be an opportunity for us.

We’re also partnering with Detroit, Cleveland, and Grand Rapids to do a Great Lakes Passport visit. We had this planned even before the virus came, so we’re planning to launch that project once some normalcy returns this summer.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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