FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – A new report shows Indianapolis has lost up to $60 million in tourism money since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act got passed last year. Twelve out-of-state groups were surveyed. All of them said the controversial law was part of the reason why they went elsewhere. Changes were made to the initial law, but critics said the law doesn’t go far enough to protect the LGBT community.
Luckily, Fort Wayne isn’t feeling the same impact as Indianapolis. Leaders with Visit Fort Wayne are thanking a special marketing campaign called Meet Fort Wayne for keeping and attracting clients. The Meet Fort Wayne campaign wasn’t started as a direct response to RFRA, but it launched right around the same time the controversy started. While purely coincidental, it’s now something Visit Fort Wayne calls perfect timing.
“It’s a significant amount of dollars lost in Indianapolis. They should be concerned. As a state, we should be concerned about the perception of not being open to all people because we’re famous for our Hoosier Hospitality. It’s what we here in Fort Wayne really depend on, going that extra mile to make them feel special in our community and make them feel like a big fish in a smaller pond. We work really hard at hospitality and so the perception of being hospitable or inhospitable is a very important brand quality for us,” Visit Fort Wayne President and CEO Dan O’Connell said.
Visit Fort Wayne typically drives in between $8 to $10 million of business annually. Even with the RFRA fallout, it maintained those numbers last year, bringing in 34 meetings and conventions worth $8 million.
“We’re very pleased with that,” O’Connell said. “We did have about 20 groups turn us down, but for a whole variety of reasons. Only one turned us down to RFRA, and it was only a small meeting for about a hundred people. It’s worth a small amount of money, but it’s still money and it’s still good groups. It’s still the perception.”
That perception of discrimination is what Meet Fort Wayne works to eliminate. Besides hotels, things to do, and places to eat, the campaign breaks down RFRA and the city’s policies to protect all people.
“We do reference the position that our city has and our civil rights law, that we’re open to business and we’re non-discriminatory because it is such a concern to planners. So, we bring the question up first to refute the concerns,” O’Connell said. “Their perception of that destination is critical. So, we try to have the conversation about all of those factual details of choosing a community, but also how they’re going to be welcomed. Henceforth, RFRA has been part of that discussion ever since last year.”
Visit Fort Wayne promotes the campaign in ads, meeting planner guides, and trade shows, tying to spread a welcoming message any way it can.
“It’s important to the state that we continue to hammer away that we’re a hospitable destination, a good state to meet in, that we are open for business and we’re open to all,” O’Connell said. “It’s important to be hospitable, but to communicate that we’re not having state laws that prohibit people from visiting and being discriminated against, that that doesn’t occur. It doesn’t exist now, but that perception is reality in some people’s minds. We have to deal with it if you’re going through the business of booking conventions.”
Visit Fort Wayne said easing any concerns is critical to ensure continued success locally and state-wide.
“At the end of the day, states and cities, we’re all in competition with each other for this very transferable business whether it’s the Super Bowl or the Final Four or the meeting of the Tea Cup Collectors, and henceforth, we’d like to be seen as a viable destination and a good state to meet in,” O’Connell said.
The campaign cost Visit Fort Wayne about $10,000, but’s already included in the budget.