Jessa Campbell has been holding doors open all morning as a small group tours various attractions in downtown Fort Wayne.
She jokes that it is her job. And as part of the Visit Fort Wayne team, holding open the city's doors is indeed the mission.
On this March morning, four bloggers are being shown around the city starting with breakfast at Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Tables are set up in a room off the first garden and the writers eat while getting a presentation about some of what they'll be seeing during their two-day visit.
Soon, a host from the conservatory comes to take them on a walk through the gardens. They pull out their cellphones and document everything with photos and video for their websites and social media accounts. Together, they have about 18,000 followers on Instagram alone.
By the time they stop for lunch at Coney Island about four hours later, they have visited The Landing and Promenade Park for hard-hat tours of the construction and Fort Wayne Outfitters for information on accessing the rivers and trails. They also have been given tours of Artlink and Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Later will come stops at such spots as Science Central, Parkview Field, Embassy Theatre, several downtown murals and the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center where staff members have worked up family histories for each of the writers before they head to a progressive dinner with courses at several downtown restaurants.
A tour of Fort Wayne Children's Zoo awaits the next morning.
Finding a match
Kristen Guthrie, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Fort Wayne, sees hosting writers as a valuable tool for marketing the city. Because of that, it hosts many of them each year.
The Visit Fort Wayne team researches publications and writers to find those that will reach a desired audience. If they know someone is working on a “Festivals of the Midwest” feature, for example, someone from Visit Fort Wayne sends them info on local festivals.
“Our goal is positive media coverage for Fort Wayne, specifically in relation to a visitor audience and things visitors can do while they're here,” Guthrie says. That mission includes all of Allen County.
Conferences like the Travel Media Showcase help Visit Fort Wayne connect with writers.
Guthrie compares the showcase to speed dating. Organizers send a list of attending writers for groups like Visit Fort Wayne to research. Visit Fort Wayne picks which writers it would like to meet.
Similarly, the writers are given a list of destinations to choose from. If a destination and writer pick each other, they are set up for a meeting at the showcase.
Writers are also able to walk around to see cities' booths at conferences. At any given conference, about half the attending writers will be a good fit for Fort Wayne, Guthrie says.
If a connection is made through a meeting or booth visit, a writer might be invited to come to Fort Wayne. That might include a multiday guided tour or a more casual visit where the writer is given admission passes and allowed to set his or her own pace.
Visit Fort Wayne attends three conferences a year. It may act as a sponsor for other shows it can't attend, sending gifts and info about the city to attending writers.
Writers can also request to be hosted through a form on Visit Fort Wayne's website.
Writers are vetted to make sure they are legitimate. If someone wants to come to Fort Wayne but they don't make the cut for a full hosted tour, they might still get tickets to something in town like the zoo.
Guthrie says the travel writing industry has changed in recent years to be more about individual writers. Many are bloggers like the four women that visited in March.
That sort of shift may work in the city's favor because personal relationships can be built more easily, Guthrie says.
Campbell says it also helps Visit Fort Wayne get more bang for its buck.
“They're writing for more publications, doing freelance work on the side, ... so it helps broaden our efforts,” the marketing and communications coordinator says.
The process of planning a visit might depend on what the writers are interested in. Many are family-travel bloggers, but others might have specific interests such as the Genealogy Center or sports.
“Our whole job is finding the different assets of Fort Wayne and matching them up with people who will visit for that reason,” Guthrie says.
Visit Fort Wayne works with local partners, including about a dozen hotels, 15 attractions and 100 restaurants that provide free rooms, admission and meals to visiting writers.
The cost to Visit Fort Wayne is minimal, Guthrie says. It pays for drinks and tips at restaurants and rents a van for the guided tours.
Good for all
Visit Fort Wayne is blessed with generous partners and knows from conversations with counterparts that not every city gets that sort of support from its attractions, Guthrie says.
Of course, those attractions are hoping to get coverage through the writers' articles and social media. When the stories come out, Visit Fort Wayne is quick to share them with its partners as proof that the process is working.
Amanda Shepard, vice president and COO of Fort Wayne Museum of Art, often leads tours when writers are brought to the museum.
“I'm there to impart to them information that I think they can easily convert for their audiences because I understand the challenge that they have,” she says.
Bloggers and social media influencers come with various levels of training and credentials, so Shepard wants to make sure she finds angles that can be easily shared with the writers and their varied audiences. She has young children, so she keeps in mind what traveling families might want to experience on a visit to Fort Wayne.
Shepard says she puts her trust in Guthrie and Visit Fort Wayne and thinks the tours are a good thing for the museum to participate in. The museum hasn't tracked visitors based on travel writer recommendations, but she knows that social media gets people in the doors.
For example, when U.K.-based photographer Kirsty Mitchell had an exhibition at the museum last year, people came from as far away as Canada because they saw her post that her work was on display, something that doesn't happen often in the United States.
Fort Wayne Children's Zoo is another frequent stop for visiting travel writers.
Bonnie Kemp, director of communication, says the zoo doesn't know how individual guests hear about the attraction, but she expects that many people are coming after seeing it online.
Exposure on websites and social media goes far and wide. When a team from Fort Wayne Children's Zoo went to Australia to learn more about their Tasmanian devils, people there said they had heard of the zoo.
Kemp thinks a lot of that awareness comes from visitors, including travel writers sharing their experiences online.
That sort of attention isn't just good for the zoo, it is good for the city, she says.
“Visit Fort Wayne and these tours drive guests to Fort Wayne,” Kemp says. “They're eating food and they're shopping in our stores and they're helping our local economy.”
Even if an attraction or business isn't specifically mentioned by Visit Fort Wayne, it might catch the attention of visiting writers.
Two writers visiting on a self-guided tour last month were dining at Hop River Brewing Co. and were told about Zinnia's Bakehouse, which provides bread for the restaurant.
Later, they were exploring downtown and saw the Zinnia's sign in the window at Cottage Flowers, so they stopped in.
Zinnia's owner Krystal Vega says the writers each asked questions about the bakery and were expecting to mention it to their followers.
The bakery moved to its new location downtown a few months ago, and Vega says that was the second time bloggers had stopped to write about her business.
“I'm excited to see how that keeps growing,” Vega says.
Shelly Bergman, an Indianapolis-based writer, posted dozens of photos and videos on social media while in the city last month and wrote three posts about Fort Wayne on her website, DIYMamaBlog.com, after returning home.
Much of her blog's traffic for travel-related content comes through Pinterest, where she says she gets 12 million views monthly.
It was her first hosted trip to a city, though she is planning more this summer for a series on her blog.
“Since I've experienced that, now I have very high standards for any other visit that I take,” Bergman said by phone.
Though she says the tour was fast-paced and wishes she had more time at some of the stops, she found lots of things to love in Fort Wayne and plans to bring her family of four back once Promenade Park is open.
All four writers on the tour said they would come back to Fort Wayne.
“The best part was that we were connected with the people that were in charge, either the owners or the managers,” Bergman says.
Tour leaders included Megan Butler, Riverfront Fort Wayne program and events manager, at Promenade Park and executive director Matt McClure at Artlink.
Bergman was especially impressed with the restaurants. The food was great, and she loved the prices compared with Indianapolis.
“If those specific restaurants were picked up and moved to Indianapolis, I wouldn't be able to eat there, for sure,” she says. “So I loved that about Fort Wayne. It is a big city, but they don't have a lot of the hassles you find when you go downtown Indy.”
Kathy Haan, a blogger, podcaster and business coach from Denver, Iowa, was drawn to the family-friendly aspects of the city.
Her 5-year-old son was recently diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, and she noted how many local attractions were sensory friendly. Several stops on the trip made a point of talking about their accessibility.
“For families like mine, we don't get to go out a lot unless is it sensory-friendly,” she says by phone from Iowa.
“So I'm really proud of the fact that you guys – small-town, Midwest – have really catered to that.”
While Haan was in Indiana, she was also hosted by Hamilton County and the Indianapolis Children's Museum. She is coming back to Indiana several times this summer for hosted trips.
Haan does four to five hosted trips every other month and is a TripAdvisor influencer, which means the travel website will send her opportunities for travel such as a trip to Iceland where she went snorkeling between tectonic plates.
Her usual trip is a self-guided tour with gift cards or a budget set by the hosting city. She says she prefers that kind of visit because she can go at her own pace and include her family in the activities.
She says she reaches more than 100,000 people per month between social media and page views on her website.
Haan posted on social media during her local visit and posted an article this month on her website, IdyllicPursuit.com, that lists 18 reasons to visit Fort Wayne.
Though some cities have firm rules for how much content writers must produce in exchange for a hosted trip, Visit Fort Wayne sets less demanding expectations.
There is an agreement made with writers that social media posts and written coverage will follow a visit, but it is not a binding contract.
Writers like Haan appreciate the local approach. She says she won't work with cities that try to dictate coverage.
Visit Fort Wayne hosted 40 writers in 2017 and 25 last year, which was an off-year for the Vera Bradley tour.
This year will have the highest number ever. Six writers had tours in March and five came during the Vera Bradley sale this month. Another tour is in the works for September and from 25 to 40 writers will be hosted individually over the summer.
A hosted trip in June will include more than 100 people as about 25 writers are invited to visit with their families.
They will have a mostly self-guided tour emphasizing family-friendly attractions such as the TinCaps and the newly opened Promenade Park.
During her March visit, writer Mary Graham of Indianapolis said she was enjoying her time in the city. Graham has two daughters and does five hosted trips a year with the goal of seeing all 50 states.
Deb Steenhagen also said she was glad she agreed to make the trip to Fort Wayne. A blogger from Grand Rapids, Michigan, she is used to driving through Indiana to get to what might be seen as more desirable locations. But her visit here will let her tell people there is something worth stopping for.
Guthrie says writers are often impressed when they come to Fort Wayne and Visit Fort Wayne has never had a bad article written after a visit.
“This job would be much harder if there were things we couldn't show them, or things we had to spin or hype up because it wasn't up to par,” she says.