Forward

Wichita strives to catch the eye of the gatekeepers for companies looking to move

The Aviator's Cafe at Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport in November 2015.
The Aviator's Cafe at Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport in November 2015. The Wichita Eagle

The plain boxes would show up on the desk of officials who are constantly gathering information on places their clients may want to be.

Inside those boxes were red view masters, evoking the childhood toys popular decades ago, and a reel of 3D images touting high rankings in a variety of business categories. It wasn’t until the end of the disk that the viewer discovered the rankings were for Wichita.

The colorful promotional tool was a hit among the site selectors who received them,, officials for Greater Wichita Partnership said.

“That was great,” a longtime site selector wrote to Andrew Nave, executive vice president of economic development for the agency, after receiving the view master more than a year ago. “I haven’t seen something like that in a long time.”

Catching the eye of site selectors is important, because they’ve become the gatekeepers for companies looking to move or expand to new locations. As much as 70 percent of all such projects involve site selectors, said Mark Williams, chairman of the board for the Site Selectors Guild, an association of professional site selection consultants.

They’re not just looking for a good place to buy or build, officials say, they want to know what kinds of workers are in the area and whether there’s a nice quality of life available, too.

‘Wine and dine’

Up until the early 1990s, most expansions or relocations were “the old guard of ‘Do you know somebody?’ Come into my town, wine and dine you and you strike up a deal,”

But that began to change as mergers and acquisitions took place, the marketplace became more competitive and the economy sagged and surged. Now, every major accounting firm and many large real estate companies, along with other sectors, have site selection divisions.

“Most major companies are using site selection consultants,” Williams said. “These are decisions they don’t make often. They’re very complex.

“If mistakes are made, they’re for the life of the project.”

Whether a business is spending tens of millions or hundreds of millions on a relocation or expansion, “they absolutely want to get it right,” Nave said. “They especially want to make sure that they minimize their risk. There are probably a lot of locations they can do very well, but maybe a few locations that are ideal or perfect.”

One of the most common mistakes economic development agencies make, site selectors say, is not emphasizing what makes their location stand out.

“Especially if you’re looking for a project that’s less than unique,” Williams said. “It’s one thing to look for a 1,000-acre site with heavy utilities. There’s not that many of those.

“But if it’s a 50-acre site with regular utilities and labor draw requirements that aren’t extreme, there are a lot of communities that fit that bill. They need to differentiate themselves.

“Every community has assets and liabilities. It’s incumbent on communities to understand what their assets are.”

Wichita’s assets

Wichita’s strongest assets include its workforce, varied housing stock and a solid network of “transportation connectors” such as Eisenhower National Airport and the major highways of U.S. 54, K-96, I-235, I-135 and the I-35 corridor linking Kansas City to Dallas, said Jeff Fluhr, president of Greater Wichita Partnership.

Even with a clear sense of strengths and weaknesses, officials say, it can be a challenge to capture the attention of site selectors. With more than 2,000 economic development agencies around the country and only a few hundred site selectors, Nave said, “there’s a lot of us and very few of them.”

That’s where gestures such as the red view masters come in.

“A lot of site selectors had those when they were kids,” said Jaimie Garnett, executive vice president of strategic communications for the Greater Wichita Partnership.

It was a conscious choice to evoke pleasant childhood memories while spreading the word about Wichita, she said.

One of the nation’s first site selectors, with decades of experience, sent Nave a note calling the view master “great....that was perfect.”

‘Site elimination’

But getting the attention of site selectors is just the start of the process. They’re called site selectors, but “their real job is site elimination,” Nave said.

Once site selectors are considering your city or your region for a new call center or manufacturing plant or whatever their client wants, “it’s about making the next cut,” he said.

When real estate representatives are in town considering potential locations, “that’s a whole different set of challenges,” Nave said.

If the deal is so close that the chief executive officer comes to town to see things firsthand, that’s another layer of questions and issues.

“There are different strategies with each round” of discussions and negotiations, Nave said.

“When you think of all the great places in America, and they select you, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

One million impressions

Along with nostalgia, Wichita is using modern ways to get its message to targeted audiences.

Leading up to and during the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas last October, the Greater Wichita Partnership used geofencing to send information about Wichita to 50 companies they were targeting for potential projects. The technology would deliver alerts and invitations to phones of customers who opted in to the service and then entered designated zones such as the convention center or an airport.

The project attracted more than 1 million views, Garnett said.

Recognizing that society today is increasingly visual, Garnett said, the partnership produces videos to provide fresh data or developments to site selectors and other interested parties.

“We like to tell the story visually” whenever possible, she said.

Even with modern technology offering more tools to share their story, Wichita officials still like to retain the old-school method of face-to-face meetings, Fluhr said.

“We go to them” when possible, so selectors can meet members of the private sector with whom they may be working closely on a project, he said.

“The relationship is still important,” Fluhr said. “You want these individuals, as they’re working on projects, you’re in their mindset.”

The varied approach is paying off, Fluhr said. The partnership had 35 prospects in the pipeline in 2016. As 2018 opens, that figure is now 70.

Many of those are the result of working with site selectors, Nave said.

“It’s coming from awareness,” Fluhr said. “And it’s coming from people understanding the growing opportunities in Wichita, and they’re starting to connect with us.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger

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