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Free citywide event offers passport to experience Fort Wayne

Visit Fort Wayne's Kristen Guthrie is happy to see the popularity of this annual event continue to grow after 24 years.
Courtesy/Visit Fort Wayne
Visit Fort Wayne's Kristen Guthrie is happy to see the popularity of this annual event continue to grow after 24 years.

Home town pride is a wonderful thing and as if to prove that very point, Visit Fort Wayne is rolling out the welcome wagon this Sunday with a challenge to its own residents to “Become a Tourist in Your Own Home Town.”

Now in its 24th year, this celebration continues to highlight gems of local historic and cultural interest to the public, free of charge that can only be enjoyed in this fashion once a year, on this occasion.

As with any travel adventure worth taking, passports and schedules are available to outline the official 2023 Itinerary which consists of 21 old and new points of interest on the city’s skyline.

And the biggest challenge, according to Kristen Guthrie, Visit Fort Wayne’s vice president of marketing and communications, is for tourists to narrow it all down to what fits into that day.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the impact of such a community-centric activity and the importance of being a home town ambassador.

Event Information:

Visit Fort Wayne's Be a Tourist in Your Own Home Town
Sunday, Sept. 10
12 to 5:00 pm
Free Admission
All Ages

Find complete listing of attractions and downloadable passport at the Visit Fort Wayne website.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Julia Meek: Kristen Guthrie, welcome.

Kristen Guthrie: Thank you.

Julia Meek: So visit Fort Wayne turns the tables this time of year with a challenge to our community to explore its local treasures. Let's take a quick look back at the origins of this adventure, why make it a formal event?

Kristen Guthrie: I love that you said turn the tables. We work every day to bring visitors to our community, and they love our museums and attractions. And 24 years ago, we said, let's turn the tables a bit, (chuckles) and invite our residents to be tourists in their own hometown.

Encourage people to explore their community, like you do explore when you're traveling to a new city and see all the museums the attractions and just enjoy the day pretending they're a tourist. And so we did flip the tables and it's been a great fun time.

Julia Meek: Studies indicate that communities just tend to underutilize all of the landmarks and resources. How did we measure up when all this began compared to now?

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, absolutely. Wherever you live, you take it for granted. You know, when you travel, you make an intentional effort to seek out the places to go and the things to do.

But wherever you live, you get in a rut, you know, you go to places you go to you forget to visit or you think I went there 10 years ago, and I don't need to go there. Again, that happens wherever you live.

And so other communities like ours have done similar projects to say remember to explore your own community to because there's so much to discover.

Julia Meek: So it sounds like we were probably about average. And while we're talking about the progress that we've made, how has Fort Wayne's Skyline changed over these 24 years?

Kristen Guthrie: It's so fun to look through the attractions we're featuring and some of them didn't even exist when we started, you know, like Electric Works or the riverfront promenade Park.

One fun story this week at the Visitor Center, a gentleman came in who hadn't been here in 15 years, and he could not orient himself to downtown Fort Wayne and he was so excited. He was coming back as a visitor exploring and loving our community. And it was a great example of what we want residents to be sure to do!

You know, it's hard to keep up with all the great things opening and happening. So this is a day to check it out.

Julia Meek: Okay, our local history and geography and demographics, they quite make our interesting downtown above average, a lot of people say. What does that mean for tourists, no matter where they're from?

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, you can really explore that during Be a Tourist in Your Own Home Town, because a lot of the attractions participating are architectural gems, are historic treasures, and is the only day of the year you can take your camera into the courthouse and capture that beauty.

They'll have docents there all talking about what the murals mean, and explaining some of the treasures there. You know, you can't do that any other day. It's just one of many...there are several historic churches that are showing, you know, behind the scenes, you get to go onstage at the Embassy.

So you get to see these historic treasures, but in a really real way you get to interact, you get to learn. It's a great opportunity.

Julia Meek: Up close and personal!

Kristen Guthrie: Absolutely. All the way.

Julia Meek: So one day...21 attractions! Starting with passports, how does all of this work?

Kristen Guthrie: Yes, you do pick up a passport. You can pick one up at a Kroger or an Old National Bank location. Or you can print one from our website when you're at home,

You print out your passport, you pick up a passport book, and you go around to the locations you choose. And you get a passport stamp; children in particular love to kind of collect those stamps. It's fun, and it looks like kind of a real passport but you...

Julia Meek: It is a real passport! (laughs)

You're absolutely right! And no security's very easy to use. (chuckles) But yeah, you go around, pick the ones you want to visit. And it's just from noon to five--it's free admission. 21 different places here in Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: Indoors, outdoors all around. And of course a lot of concentration right in the city, which is fantastic.

Kristen Guthrie: Yes, it's wonderful. They really are all over from the Veterans National Memorial Shrine outside of downtown; many are downtown. They're all over the place.

And so you do have to kind of plan ahead a little bit, map out your day. Some have special tour times so you might want to read your passport ahead of time and plan your route so that you don't miss out on something that you might want to do.

Julia Meek: Like a vacation?

Kristen Guthrie: Exactly, right!

Julia Meek: Now like any good Visitor Center, you are up on everything there is to see and do and enjoy. So where and how did you start to curate this all important list 24 years ago?

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, boy, it's difficult because as you said, there is so much to see and do we do have probably about 30 attractions that kind of participate with us on and off. Some can do it some years, some can't.

This year, like I said, there are 21; that's wonderful. So we really try to highlight the museums, the attractions, the historic and architectural gems in our community, kind of the nonprofits, that's our criteria, the places our visitors love to enjoy.

Julia Meek: Is it fair to say one of the popular terms of the day, things that are absolutely Fort Wayne?

Kristen Guthrie: That is a great way to put it, you know, like the Historic Fort or the places that are essential Fort Wayne. Yeah, we want to really highlight those places and those are the places that our visitors are attracted to.

And we want to make sure our residents are great knowledgeable ambassadors for our community and have this knowledge too.

Julia Meek: Perfect—perfect match indeed. Now assuming you couldn't run out of points of interest—it doesn't sound like it could...

Kristen Guthrie: (chuckles) Yeah.

Julia Meek: What is the biggest challenge to this part of the planning? And by the way, can you ever get too much of a good thing?

Kristen Guthrie: Good question. Yeah, the biggest challenge is to the person participating, because they have to kind of choose what they're going to do. You can't make 21 locations in five hours, I'm sure.

But you can count on every year, they all will participate again, you know, the majority you'll see again next year, you saw it last year. So you can count on that and just kind of plan out... Okay, who's coming with us today? What do they want to see and do? What's something new or special?

So the biggest challenge is probably narrowing down selecting and planning your day.

Julia Meek: No shortage of additions or variations for you for coming years, though?

Kristen Guthrie: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: Now the price is not only right, it's screaming for folks to utilize that passport to the max. 21, one day, highly unlikely. But do folks really maximize their day, make a whole day of it, are you finding?

Kristen Guthrie: They do and I love to see that. You know, there's a map in the back of the passport and we see people kind of coming downtown having lunch before noon, you know, sitting with their passport as a family, planning out the day and then hitting it.

Enjoying those five hours or maybe doing dinner afterward, you know, staying a little longer. We absolutely love to see that and encourage that.

Julia Meek: And if you're out and about anywhere, especially in our downtown on the riverfront area, there are all kinds of distractions among the attractions, including the murals that are just seemingly everywhere. Do you get reports of the extra things that people have unearthed? While they're on these trips?

Kristen Guthrie: Absolutely, you're gonna run across a restaurant you didn't know was there, you're gonna have to stop for ice cream, you know, (chuckles) you're gonna want to maybe rent a kayak and take a diversion, like you said, do something a little different, or make a plan to come down next weekend.

And yeah, that is so welcome. You know, we definitely see a lot of selfies at the murals, a lot of people discovering a new sculpture a new and that's the whole point of the day. So if it takes you off track, and you end up going in a different direction than you planned, I think that's a great thing too.

Julia Meek: Great thing! Then what kind of numbers and just who do you expect to see hot on this trail on that day?

Kristen Guthrie: One of the things personally, that I have found most satisfying about being part of this event is the wide, wide variety of people, I think if you're at any attraction, you see, really all ages, all types of people. I love that. So there's no limitation to who can enjoy it, especially because there's so much variety of attractions.

You know, there are gardens, there are historical sites there are art centers—you know, whatever you're interested in, or maybe something you didn't know about that you want to become interested in. I love that so much. And it's a really important part of this community day!

Julia Meek: Indeed. And by the way, are there repeat participants that you can track by year?

Kristen Guthrie: Absolutely. You know, we do take attendance at the museums and attractions, which by the way, they're the ones graciously opening their doors, and they are giving this gift to the community. They do talk to people, they do learn from people.

You know, last year, I heard about a man who was in the Embassy and said, what a beautiful building, they should put shows on in here. And the director said we do, here's our schedule, you know, and then he came back and enjoyed a show and said, I just didn't know that this building was here and now I'm here enjoying a performance. So that is an awesome outcome. That is definitely what we want.

And then we definitely see people year after year who saved their passports as a little memento. And they come back the next year and they do something different, or they hit their favorite spot. Again, we love that and love to see that.

Julia Meek: It's a point of pride as well as a part of ownership. And that's a dream come true, I would think.

Kristen Guthrie: It is and that's what we want is that community pride. And we want people to become better informed ambassadors for their community so that, you know, when their friends and family come to town, they are able to help guide, to suggest things to do.

You know, people want to be great hosts to their friends and family and we want to equip them to be able to do that!

Julia Meek: Great point. And okay, are there ways to quantify the success that this has netted over the years?

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, so I mean, we do count attendance and that's a big one and attendance does grow every year and that's wonderful to have 10s of 1000s of people doing this. But the biggest I think is that story about the Embassy--is the person who visits for the first time and then becomes an advocate, maybe becomes a member of the Botanical Conservatory, for example, maybe brings their nieces and nephews back to Science Central a year later.

Those are the successes we really want to see-- residents having pride, you know, recognizing what a great community we have but then becoming ambassadors and customers in the future and advocates that promote these great places and say, “Hey, I know where we can go I know what we can do. I have some good ideas for us over the weekend!”

Julia Meek: That is an empowerment!

Kristen Guthrie: It is, it is!

Julia Meek: And in this hustle and bustle of the 21st century where everybody's too busy doing something technological it seems is the very hands-on nature of it growing in attraction, can you say?

Kristen Guthrie: We like that part of it, the part of it that still has a printed passport that people are stamping, the part of it that still is physically walking in and doing it as opposed to, there are virtual tours available, there are digital resources available...but this is a day that's a very physical doing it day.

And seeing it and experiencing it and playing together and discovering together. And we really have appreciated that we've been able to keep doing that after 24 years!

Julia Meek: Do the crowds continue to grow?

Kristen Guthrie: They do, they do. After a year off due to COVID we were you know, wondering, do we bring it back? We have done this for so many years. And so many people were calling and saying, “When will the next via tourists be? We hate that we missed one. How do we do it again?”

And it was a very encouraging sign to keep working together as a community of museums, attractions and sites to put this event on!

Julia Meek: Happy new normalcy for Fort Wayne...all the way?

Kristen Guthrie: All the way!

Julia Meek: Now as Fort Wayne continues to enjoy economic growth and development, how do we compare to cities our size, maybe even larger that have adopted this sort of interactive event?

Kristen Guthrie: I think we're one city that has continued to do it. I know some that have done it for a while and stopped. It is a very generous gift for these museums and attractions to have a free day. I mentioned Science Central. They are allowing 1000's of families to come for free on Sunday, Sept. 10.

That is a very generous gift to the community. And all of these attractions are staffing, they are putting on events. Some of them you'll see have hot dogs they're giving away or a petting zoo outside. That's an expense. It's a commitment. And they want to do that to share with the community, to be part of this event.

That is a really generous, beautiful thing. And I love that they have wanted to continue to do that.

Julia Meek: It's a really big city thing in a small community heart.

Kristen Guthrie: Yes!

Julia Meek: And it makes all of our hearts sing that it does happen, thanks to Visit Fort Wayne.

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, we're glad to organize it, but it's them who deserve really the praise and the thanks. And I hope as people visit, they do say, “Thank you for doing this today, because it's a expense and a challenge for them.

But I think we've been able to do it for this many years because the community has appreciated so much. And the attractions want to continue to give that gift.

Julia Meek: Now I am curious, Kristen, looking back at your soon to be two dozen citywide tours, what has changed the most. And really on the flip side, what is the coolest constant?

Kristen Guthrie: It is very cool to see the attractions that have done this all 24 years, I believe the History Center Science Central, the Botanical Conservatory, some of these big attractions have done this for 24 years. That's really cool. And we're really grateful for that.

On the flip side, it is cool to look at this list and to think, “Wait, some of these places didn't exist when we started--how much our community has grown!” And one of those is Electric Works, brand new! This is its first year, and they're allowing people to go up on the roof there. And that is something you can't do on a regular day, get that bird's eye view from the south side of Fort Wayne. Very cool!

And that wasn't even in our minds, or heart’s dreams, you know, 24 years ago. So it's very cool or to think about what the river used to look like as compared to what people will experience at Promenade Park on Sunday. It's dramatic changes alongside really beautiful constants that we love. So we're very grateful for both.

Julia Meek: And you've kind of turned the tables once again in making the constants and the changing all one great big bunch of wonderful to be appreciated on one day.

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, and we see it as one thing because we're always talking to our visitors about THESE are the things you can do in Fort Wayne. These are the experiences you'll have--the things you'll love.

So to us, it's very natural to combine these say, “Come have dinner on the landing and then go and experience some history too.” It's a cool mix. And it's what makes Fort Wayne so great.

Julia Meek: You're bringing everything on home! (all chuckle) Now last question: Sense of place being critical to the wellbeing of a community, Kristen, and Fort Wayne, one fine hometown, what do you hope every one of these Tourists turned Ambassadors will take away from the experience and make their very, very own?

Kristen Guthrie: Yeah, I do really hope they leave the day with a real sense of pride, a sense of what a great community they have the fortune to live in. And I hope they do think, I want to speak better and promote this community better as I go forward.

When friends and family come to visit. I want to say yes, come stay with me in Fort Wayne, because there's so much we can do! There's so much we can see and enjoy! I think they'll benefit from that, that that sense of pride will buoy them, will encourage all of us, and it will benefit their families in their activities.

And I just really have seen that and I think our our biggest goal with this event is to encourage people to become ambassadors for our community and to have that pride.

Julia Meek: Kristin Guthrie is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Visit Fort Wayne. Thanks for sharing this great story with us. Bonvoy! Have a great adventure!

Kristen Guthrie: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.