Wichita’s convention business drives about $45 million a year to the city’s economy. It’s a competitive business, marketing the city and promoting tourism.
Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau got a new leader late last year, Susie Santo, who is excited about promoting Wichita to the rest of the country.
Santo grew up in Salina, is a graduate of the University of Kansas and spent the last two decades in Los Angeles. She says she moved back to Wichita in August of 2012 for a couple of reasons.
"My passion is tourism and so this opportunity to work with a great group of folks to promote this product that we have here and then personally to be close to family," says Santo. "I still have my folks in Salina and we have a young daughter and it’s nothing like raising her with these Midwestern values.”
Santo spent 19 years at Universal Studios Hollywood in a variety of jobs. She started as a tour guide and eventually led the international sales efforts, and held the jobs in between like marketing, operations, sales and product development.
“At the end of the day, Universal and Wichita are very similar in the sense that we are trying to attract visitors to choose our destination, to come spend their leisure dollars and have a great time,” she says.
The U.S. Bowling Congress awarded its 100th women’s championships to the city. The event will be held from April to June in 2019. As part of Go Wichita, Santo says her team focuses on marketing the city to both conventions and also the leisure visitor.
“We sell convention business," she says. "Perhaps people that didn’t even have Wichita on their radar, we bring that business here. We educate on the value of tourism and provide service. Whether you’ve got out of town visitors coming in for the weekend, the visitors center provides information on what’s happening around town.”
About 60 percent of Go Wichita’s conventions are in the Wichita region, another 30 to 35 percent are national. Santo says their service sets Go Wichita apart from other cities.
“One that’s at the really top of the list is we’ve got unbelievable hospitality," she says. "The people are so friendly, so kind. We’ve got a lot of services. We can pretty much fulfill their room nights and their needs at Century II, etc. So we are affordable. We’ve got friendly people, we’ve got the big city amenities but really that small town feel, if you will.”
The Wichita State University Shockers Men Basketball team making it to the Final Four had a tremendous impact for the city, including Go Wichita. Santo says people that perhaps weren’t even thinking about Wichita became more familiar with the area.
“During the period of the Final Four, we had a 25 percent spike in our online visitors than last year’s Final Four," she says. "And we know people are checking us out and we’re just thrilled and we’re looking forward to next season.”
One of the challenges facing destination-marketing organizations, including Go Wichita is downsizing.
Santo says a lot of people are vying for the same piece of business. Some national conferences have downsized, so it's important to highlight how Wichita is different from other competing cities.
And economically, tourism impacts the Wichita area. The most recent data from 2011 shows leisure visitors spent $712 million in Wichita’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey and Sumner counties. Santo says that’s nearly $69 million in taxes.
“If tourism didn’t exist, every household would pay another $900 to $1000 in taxes just to support what our current visitors are paying and so it really benefits all of us," she says. "I think sometimes if you are a business, it’s hard to tell how you are benefiting because tourists don’t have a name tag and they walk in and they dine at your restaurant and it’s hard to see. But they are here and they are spending their hard-earned dollars in our community and we all are benefiting from it.”
Some Wichitans don’t necessarily see all the city has to offer, which surprised Santo.
“Quite honestly, coming in August, I’ve had several people ask me personally, 'Why did you move to Wichita?'" she says. " And I always wanted to say there’s so much to do here."
Santo says research shows that people don’t know what to expect when they come to Wichita. Go Wichita’s advertising efforts are trying to focus on the wide variety of offerings in the city. She says Wichita has 33 museums, 28 art galleries, 22 attractions and 22 live theaters.
“It’s really letting all the Wichitans know what we have to offer," she says. "And then encouraging them to be ambassadors, share the news.”