Purdue professor: 'Tourism is bigger than you think'

Lorelei Weimer, executive director of the Indiana Dunes Tourism, left, speaks at the Vision Project symposium. To her left are Purdue University professor Jonathan Day and Rex Richards, president/CEO of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce.

SCHERERVILLE — When it comes to attracting tourists, Indiana Dunes is No. 1 in Indiana, Lorelei Weimer said.

Weimer, who serves as executive director for Indiana Dunes Tourism, spoke Wednesday at the South Shore Leadership Center-sponsored Vision Project daylong symposium.

"It (the Indiana Dunes) is putting us on the map," Weimer said.

Weimer was one of several speakers who addressed the theme, "Developing the Region As A Tourist Destination — What This Really Means," at the event held at the Halls of St. George.

"This is the inaugural event," South Shore Leadership Center President and CEO Harry Vande Velde said.

The four points the symposium focused on were networking, building leadership toolboxes, developing a strong base of knowledge, then making a statement of activism, Vande Velde said.

Although some 3 million visitors are traveling to take in the beauty of the Indiana Dunes each year, Weimer said her agency's job is to also get people to stay in the Region and use other services, including motels, restaurants and gas stations.

"You want to encourage them to shake off the sand, then go to Chesterton, Valparaiso and Portage. How do you do that?" Weimer said.

Weimer said her agency successfully uses digital advertising as well as print to encourage visitors to come to the area.

"We know we're successful. They're coming, staying longer and spending more. That's what we want," Weimer said.

Tourism, in new cash spent in Porter County alone, translates to $413 million annually, Weimer said.

Jonathan Day, associate professor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, said, "Tourism is bigger than you think."

In the United States alone, $2 trillion is spent annually in tourism-related expenditures, with $10.36 billion spent each year in Indiana.

Day encourages participants to work together to start building a vision of where the Region wants to go as far as tourism.

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"Tourism is something you can't do by yourself. Tourism is a full-contact team activity," Day said.

Rex Richards, president/CEO of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, said that community has made great strides in attracting visitors.

Richards gave much of the credit to the civic pride of those living in Valparaiso as well as its civic-minded business partners.

He cited the recently built $8 million downtown pavilion, used for ice skating in the winter and events in the summer, as an example of a development paid for by private and city dollars.

Richards ended his speech with a twist on the 1961 speech given by former President John F. Kennedy.

"In Valparaiso, ask not what the city government can do for you, but what you can do for the city government," Richards said.

Michael Schrage, CEO at Centier Bank, served as master of ceremonies for the event.

Schrage admitted there are lots of fiefdoms in the Region, and pulling together to obtain a tourism vision can take time.

"We have advantages if we take advantage of them," Schrage said.

Bill Geist, president of DMOproz based in Madison, Wisconsin, said building a convention center is one possibility when it comes to the group going forward with its tourism vision.

Geist cited success stories in other cities in Indiana, including convention centers built in Fort Wayne and Evansville.

"I'm not here to sell a convention center, but you do throw off a lot of advantages if you don't have one. ... A convention center brings people to town who otherwise wouldn't come," Geist said.