Visitors to Shawnee County in 2016 spent more than $340 million, and a leading tourism official said he’s expecting to see that amount continue to increase.
Visitor spending increased 5.5 percent over 2015, according to a study by Tourism Economics, said Brett Oetting, president and CEO of Visit Topeka Inc. Although the data from the annual study lags almost a year behind, it tracks multiple factors to determine how tourism impacts the state, he said.
The $18 million growth from 2015 was led primarily by increases in spending in food and beverage, lodging and recreational sectors. The spending directly supported 3,487 jobs in the county, and yielded state and local government revenue of about $34 million.
Shawnee County’s tourism revenue has increased for three years in a row, Oetting said, and he has strong expectations it will continue on that trend. Looking at other reports, along with the Tourism Economics study, gives him a good idea of what will affect the county. It also helps him plan how best to spend Visit Topeka dollars to have the most impact.
“Possibly the most important thing we try to do is we try to really understand how we’re spending the dollars that we spend,” Oetting said. “What demographics are we spending to reach and what are our limitations and how do we go after them.”
For instance, Visit Topeka spent “a great deal of money” working with the Evel Knievel Museum this year to advertise it nationally. That decision was made because the demographic of people who visit the museum — 50 percent of whom have been from out of state since it opened this year — is different from the demographic that typically visits Topeka and Shawnee County.
If those visitors can be added to the ones that already typically come here, then tourism revenue will grow, Oetting said.
“In 2017, we’re going to see some good numbers,” he said. “If you look at the zoo and even the (Kansas Children’s) Discovery Center — when I got their numbers, they have a lot of percentage of people coming from outside of the state, as well. As the Discovery Center continues to expand their outdoor area, as the zoo continues with the Camp Cowabunga progress, we’re going to continue to see more and more people to come to town because of places like that.”
Oetting said Visit Topeka continues to focus on events, as well, particularly youth sports, which brings numerous out-of-town visitors to the county.
“Those are staying busy all throughout the summer,” he said. “You can’t go out to the Bettis Complex and see those ballfields empty.”
He also believes that bringing Spectra by Comcast Spectracor to manage the Kansas Expocentre will change the events being scheduled, which will add new demographics to visitors.
“One thing that is going to help Topeka is they have different relationships than what others have had in the past,” he said.
In the hotel conferences or events and hotel markets, it’s tough to be competitive, Oetting said.
“A lot of these cities, what we would consider our competitors, have brand-new hotels and facilities, and a lot of times these conventions like to go and check out the brand new places,” he said. “The Expocentre renovation, hopefully we see some improvements to the Exhibition Hall meeting space, that will help. The Cyrus Hotel is going to help, although it’s not a big convention hotel.”
The Cyrus will affect corporate travel to Topeka, Oetting said, adding that some Topeka businesses put their corporate travelers in Lawrence hotels right now.
“We are very confident that business is going to come to Topeka,” he said.
Another positive for the future is the creation of the downtown plaza, not expected to be up and running until 2019.
“Probably the biggest reason why Visit Topeka was behind that project is because of how we felt it could increase tourism and spending in town from out-of-towners,” Oetting said. “We’re 24 months out from it being open, still a lot of work to do, but our sales staff is already booking events for 2019 through 2023. We’re talking about the plaza and the downtown entertainment district front and center when we are in – and I’ll say the word ‘fight’ — when we are in a fight with other cities to try to get these large conventions, these large ball tournaments to come here.”
Overall, Oetting is optimistic that Topeka will see continued tourism revenue growth.
“The first reason is because we’re continuing to bring new events to town and bring more people to town,” he said. “At the same time, we’re starting to really find our niche. I think in the past we were a little siloed as a city and didn’t realize what was out there in our competitor cites, how much were people paying in other cities for entertainment and hotels and restaurants. As Topeka continues to evolve, we are realizing what our worth, is and that’s making a big difference, as well. Our worth is just as equal as any of these other cities.”