Jodi’s Journal: When tourism meets workforce development

Jan. 21, 2019

OK, fellow members of the Sioux Falls business community: To all of you who have ever used the phrase “workforce development” to describe the needs of this city or your organization, this message is for you.

There’s something happening this week that you should care about, and there’s a good chance you don’t know about it.

Beginning today, about 1,500 people will arrive for a weeklong visit to Sioux Falls as part of the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The Holiday Inn City Centre will be the headquarters hotel for the event, and the attendees will use the Orpheum Theater Center and Washington Pavilion.

Approximately 75 percent of this group, or more than 1,100 people, are college students. They will be coming from seven states, as far as Kansas and Missouri.

I found out about the festival from a news release sent late last year by the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. It discovered the event two years ago while researching leads and then worked with organizers to bring it here.

I think we’re the only media outlet that ran anything on it. And the reason I did is because it’s about a lot more than bringing a new event to town.

“This is a pretty unique event for Sioux Falls to host,” agreed Teri Schmidt, the CVB’s executive director.

“To have this many college theater students and faculty here to experience the Washington Pavilion and other facilities, plus the quality of our community, is a highlight.”

It helps our cause that Jim Wood, an associate professor of theater at SDSU, is the regional board chair for the event, which has been to Minneapolis, Des Moines and Lincoln, Neb., in recent years.

“Regional five is the largest region in terms of festival attendees, partly because we’re in the Midwest and there are fewer opportunities for theater conferences,” he said, while acknowledging Sioux Falls might struggle to attract as many people as larger metros.

“We’re trying to create such an awesome festival that people say, ‘You have to check out everything in Sioux Falls.’ When these kids walk in the Washington Pavilion and see the space, they’re going to be amazed.”

The festival-goers will be busy, working on projects, watching productions, competing and learning from guest artists.

But I’m just as interested in the experience they have around all of that – in what happens as they walk downtown between events, in what they see, where they eat and socialize, and most importantly how people treat them.

One of the biggest advantages we receive as a community trying to attract more workers is when we are able to physically get them to Sioux Falls.

In many cases, once people actually make a visit and experience this community, they are far more likely to consider living here.

And that’s why this event represents such a phenomenal opportunity for Sioux Falls. This is a captive audience of creative young people, who are going to be looking for jobs as soon as later this year.

We have to take advantage of that. What if we came together as a business community to throw an after-hours event for these guests? What if we used that time to show them all the opportunities that exist here? What if we sent out an email to the attendees afterward inviting them back? Maybe in nicer weather?

Check out what they did in Michigan for this event. Maybe we can see something similar outside the State Theatre?

I’m really not sure what if anything area businesses and organizations are planning to connect to the attendees of this event. I’m not sure there is much. But the good news is, we’ll get another chance. The group will be back for a week a year from now.

So let’s take this opportunity to learn about the event and its attendees and do as much grassroots activity as we can to welcome them instead. If you’re a downtown business, consider offering a discount to those with a festival badge. Encourage your staff to be extra attentive and ensure the guests have a great experience.

And let’s be honest: It’s not the ideal time of year to show off the city. I realize you likely don’t want to be out walking around downtown, either. But let’s try to make an effort to show the city isn’t a ghost town. At least a couple of days this week, try walking to lunch if you’re downtown or go out there after work. If you’re so inclined, you can even buy a festival badge, which will get you into several of the performances happening this week.

This is especially important if you are a member of our local arts community or want to see it grow. People naturally gravitate toward people who seem relatable. It would be wonderful if these visitors saw and heard from others who can share what’s happening in the Sioux Falls arts scene and how we want to foster it.

Some of this, fortunately, should happen organically.

“With SculptureWalk and the vibrant downtown, it will help me push that message that you don’t need to leave the Midwest and go to the coast to practice theater. You can do it wherever you’re at,” Wood said.

Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge the continued value of facilities such as the Pavilion, Orpheum and State Theatre, which this group will tour. If those didn’t exist, this group wouldn’t be coming, and we would have no opportunity to introduce the city to hundreds of young creative people.

“The way Sioux Falls embraces the arts is a feather in our cap, and these guests will feel that,” Schmidt said. “Maybe they’ll move here and become part of our community. Obviously, if Sioux Falls didn’t have the facilities and amenities to ‘wow’ these people, it wouldn’t be coming here.”

I know I plan to layer up and motivate myself to spend time outside downtown this week and hopefully talk to some of our visitors. I’ll let you know what I hear. But in the meantime, we’ve got a year to plan for their next visit. Let’s make sure we’re doing all we can to capitalize on the opportunity.

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Jodi’s Journal: When tourism meets workforce development

If you’ve ever said we need more young, creative workers in Sioux Falls, this column and this week are for you.

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