Visit Topeka leader Michaela Saunders excited about community’s prospects

Saunders promoted to lead new marketing team as vice president of brand strategy

Michaela Saunders, vice president of brand strategy at Visit Topeka, holds her marketing team’s “success bell” Friday afternoon. Team members ding the bell each time they complete a task. Saunders said that keeps their focus on moving forward. (Samantha Foster/The Capital-Journal)

When Michaela Saunders moved from Omaha, Neb., to Topeka in 2011, she was excited to find the capital city gearing up for the kind of change she had seen happening in Omaha.

 

As an education reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, Saunders covered public-private partnerships supporting students from low-income households in their pursuit of higher education. Kids in middle school and high school started thinking about themselves differently because they were aware that someone was investing in them, she recalled in an interview Friday.

“It meant that I knew when I got here what it meant when I heard there was public-private partnership for basically breathing new life into downtown,” she said. “That resonated with me in a way that it wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had that experience.”

Saunders worked as a web editor at Washburn University, then in early 2016 joined Visit Topeka, where she was recently promoted to vice president of brand strategy. In her new role, she leads the newly combined marketing staff of Visit Topeka, the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, GO Topeka, Heartland Visioning, Forge, Entrepreneurial and Minority Business Development and 712 Innovations.

In a news release announcing Saunders’ promotion, Brett Oetting, president and CEO of Visit Topeka, noted that taking on the marketing efforts of so many organizations had been “a huge task.” But, he added, Saunders has proven she is capable.

“The word ‘strategy’ in her title is a testament to her thoughtful approach in ensuring each piece of the puzzle is of equal importance aimed at what’s best for the community,” Oetting said.

Saunders said the scope of her duties will remain much the same but increase in scale. Her responsibilities are increasing in proportion to Momentum 2022, the community-wide improvement plan developed for Topeka and Shawnee County.

The team has six full-time members and one who splits time between marketing and administrative support. The cornerstone, Saunders said, is that each person is focused on the future of Topeka and what Topekans understand about their community. Though each entity’s audience varies — site selectors or prospective companies, the business community, visitors and Topekans — the team is invested in increasing community pride and helping Topekans become more aware of the city’s qualities.

After moving to Topeka, Saunders got to know Washburn University well, but she began to see the bigger picture while participating in Leadership Topeka, she said. Learning the city’s history was eye-opening, she said, and made a new opportunity with Visit Topeka exciting. She credits her job at Washburn for the digital skills she developed, though she also learned on her own about content strategy, analytics and consumer experience.

“If you think about the process of getting a visitor to Topeka and then ensuring they have a good experience in Topeka, it’s really similar to the process of getting somebody to your website and then making sure they have a good experience on your website,” she said. “And so I was able to translate a lot of that experience, design stuff into what we’re doing here, which has been just a blast.”

While working at Washburn, Saunders took advantage of the university’s offer to full-time employees of one free class per semester to earn a master’s degree in liberal studies. She characterized it as a “choose-your-own-adventure degree” that allowed her to focus on her interests and gain a thorough understanding of social media use and target audiences.

Visit Topeka’s social media audience has more than tripled since Saunders joined, and it has boosted social content engagement, website visits and event attendance at festivals by locals and visitors, according to the news release. The marketing team also was recognized with statewide awards for its website and visitors guide.

Saunders’ husband, Jeremy Wangler, is a communications specialist at the Washburn University Foundation. The couple was expecting their son, Clark Wangler, now 5, when they moved to Topeka.

“That’s really probably my biggest motivator now,” she said. “If my son is part of a generation of Topekans that never thought a bad thing about Topeka — that’s sort of my mission.”

If her son’s generation grows up thinking good things about Topeka, then their kids will too. “That’s powerful,” she said.

She said she often recalls the day in April 2015 that the Topeka Metro launched its bicycle sharing program. She partnered with the Metro to hold the event on Washburn’s campus, and she said it was exciting to see college students eager to use the bikes at the same time downtown Topeka was starting its revitalization process and people were starting to float possibilities including a hotel.

“The positivity and enthusiasm for Topeka was starting to bubble up and get louder than the alternative,” Saunders said. “And I think now, in a lot of ways, I came here at a really, really cool time.”

Contact reporter Samantha Foster at (785) 295-1186 or @samfoster_ks on Twitter.

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