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'Unsung heroes' & accessibility shape Fort Wayne's first Power of Tourism & Hospitality awards

“One small experience can color a whole city for people."
'Unsung heroes' & accessibility shape Fort Wayne's first Power of Tourism & Hospitality awards
Visit Fort Wayne's Tourism Master Plan seeks to increase accessibility in the city for people with disabilities.

In January, Fort Wayne was featured in the BBC for its groundbreaking efforts to attract tourists with disabilities — a major, underserved segment in the market. 

While the average local reader might be surprised to see their hometown making national  — or even international — headlines, for Jessa Campbell at Visit Fort Wayne, it’s the culmination of months, and sometimes years, of hard work. 

“It does feel a little magical, like: How does the BBC know about Fort Wayne, Indiana?” she says. “But we spend a lot of time building relationships with writers and learning what they like to write about, which often leads to better, more authentic stories about Fort Wayne.”

Jessa Campbell is Director of Destination Development and Communications at Visit Fort Wayne.

Campbell is one of many local hospitality and service industry staff, working quietly behind the scenes to orchestrate positive experiences and press for the city, putting it on the map for visitors each year. And while the general public might not always see or appreciate their efforts, their economic impact is hard to ignore. In 2022 alone, Fort Wayne’s hospitality industry welcomed an estimated 8.8 million guests  — up 26% from 2021. These visitors infused an estimated $995 million into the local economy, saving local residents an estimated $113 million in tax revenues.

Making sure visitors enjoy their experiences and feel inspired to return or tell others is one key role of Fort Wayne’s service and hospitality staff.

“They’re the unsung heroes you don’t often see,” Campbell says. “From the woman or man changing over rooms at the hotel to the busser at the restaurant. They play important roles in our businesses and organizations, but they’re not always being celebrated, so we wanted to show them they’re valued in our community, and they can find opportunity here, too.”

That was the spirit behind Visit Fort Wayne’s first annual Power of Tourism and Hospitality Awards luncheon on May 9, which recognized members of the local industry in categories, ranging from the Thomas C. Henry Destination Development award to Rising Star, Service Excellence, Hospitality Leadership, Diversity Champion and Power of Tourism awards.

TJ Ochoa, a server at Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery and Meadery, was nominated for the Service Excellence award by Co-Founder of the business Blanca Bender. Over the years, Ochoa has been involved in Fort Wayne’s hospitality scene in many ways, from working as a barista for more than a decade to booking artists across the Midwest for gigs at local venues. While he says it’s been a “rollercoaster” in recent years, adapting to changes the hospitality industry post-pandemic, the experience has also shaped him. 

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know the people I serve and have made life long friends,” he says. “I approach the business how I try to approach my everyday life. One of my main goals everyday is to treat everyone with kindness and try to make everyone I come in contact with smile. That way, I know they smiled at least once today.”

While it might seem like a small gesture, Campbell says it’s often the little things about Fort Wayne, like welcoming smiles, that have the power to make or break experiences for guests.

“One small experience can color a whole city for people,” Campbell says. “When I bring members of the national media to town, they’re always commenting how many local people are saying ‘hi’ to them or holding doors open for them. It speaks to the friendliness of our community, and it’s something we’re all part of – creating those experiences.”

Along with attracting tourism, Kevin Boughton, Box Office Manager at the Embassy Theatre, sees providing excellent service and hospitality as an opportunity to create ripple effects of positive energy in Fort Wayne, too.

“It's the chance to make a long-lasting impact on a person,” he says. “You may not get to witness the effects you have on a particular person, but in the long run, someone will. It's kind of like paying it forward.”

Boughton was nominated for the Diversity Champion award by the theatre’s CEO Mary Jo Hardiman. He’s worked in the hotel business for 10 years and spent seven years in the theatre industry. 

“I have a passion for helping people,” he says. “To me, (being in this industry) means the opportunity to ‘wow’ and inspire new people.”

It’s something he’s proud to be part of this summer, as the Embassy prepares to host its first Middle Waves Music Festival, likely to draw guests from the region and nation. 

In addition to attracting and entertaining visitors and generating wealth for the community, Fort Wayne’s service and hospitality staff also support strategic growth in the city to improve its quality of life. This spring, Visit Fort Wayne released its Tourism Master Plan for Fort Wayne and Allen County, a 10-year vision that sets priorities for the local tourism industry and community, at large, to thrive post-pandemic. The plan is the culmination of about a year’s worth of research by Visit Fort Wayne and its consultants conducted with both residents and visitors in 2023 – all to boil down what goals and amenities people want to see most in the city’s future.

The 200-page plan identifies 20 goals to be addressed during the next decade, the most-pressing of which are: enhancing Fort Wayne’s 1) accessibility, 2) music economy and 3) sports scene, and 4) addressing its labor shortage in the hospitality industry.

Downtown Fort Wayne

The Power of Tourism and Hospitality awards give some appreication and support to hospitality staff, so their efforts feel more “seen.” Accessibility also played a role in the festivities.

The day before the awards luncheon, Visit Fort Wayne partnered with the Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA) to offer an architect-led tour of its Project Gateway renovations by the design firm Mead & Hunt. As the airport was preparing for its two-phase expansion and renovation project in recent years, it saw an opportunity to be more welcoming to travelers of all abilities, going beyond ADA standards to make its design as “universally accessible as possible.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in four adults in the United States lives with a disability, and as people age, nearly everyone acquires a disability of some kind. Yet, ADA standards often fall short of what people with disabilities — from blindness to mobility, hearing loss and more — actually need to participate easily in community life.

Upgrades to the FWA‘s recently renovated west terminal include amenities like a cane trail to help those who are visually impaired; a hearing loop to help those with reduced hearing; and an accessible curb front. Its east terminal, expected to be complete in August 2025, will feature an extended cane trail and hearing loop, as well as a frequent flyer lounge, a new welcome center and an expanded restaurant area.

Along for the tour, as keynote speaker for this year’s award ceremony, was John Morris, Founder of WheelchairTravel.org, the world's largest accessible travel website. Morris is a wheelchair user himself who writes about his travel experiences to help others in wheelchairs navigate new places. He also advocates for increased diversity, inclusion and visibility.

On his trip to Fort Wayne, he found it "fairly easy" to navigate Downtown and its attractions in his power chair, but noted that while the FWA itself is more inclusive, gaps still exist in transportation to and from the airport, which can be challenging for wheelchair users who don't know about the city’s Community Transportation Network (CTN).

Overall, perhaps more than any pros or cons, Morris says he saw an authentic spirit of collaboration and support for improving the travel experiences for people of all abilities in Fort Wayne, ranging from the city’s advocacy groups and hospitality staff to its leadership and business community.

“That’s pretty rare,” he says. “Everyone I spoke with seemed to understand that the work (of increasing accessibility) isn't done…. I’m looking forward to my next chance to return.”

Learn more

A full list of nominees and award winners for the first annual Power of Tourism & Hospitality Awards is available on Visit Fort Wayne’s website.

This article was produced as part of Visit Fort Wayne's sponsorship of The Local newsletter in May 2024.