Forging a Partnership

Peoria Magazines and Discover Peoria join forces as the office is reimagined for the post-COVID era.

by Jonathan Wright | Photography by Jeffery Noble
L-R: Elle Benway, J.D. Dalfonso and Joshua Albrecht of Discover Peoria; Jenn Gordon of ArtsPartners; Jan Wright, Mae Gilliland Wright and Jonathan Wright of Peoria Magazines
L-R: Elle Benway, J.D. Dalfonso and Joshua Albrecht of Discover Peoria; Jenn Gordon of ArtsPartners; Jan Wright, Mae Gilliland Wright and Jonathan Wright of Peoria Magazines

At the end of March, the offices of Peoria Magazines will officially move to the third floor of the Twin Towers building in downtown Peoria—into a shared space occupied by the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Coming off a very traumatic year, we are pleased to be working more closely with this respected community institution. Our relationship goes back decades, and now we are poised to join forces in a much broader partnership. But, just how did we get here? 

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has transformed the workplace. 2020 was the year of lockdowns and quarantines, PPP and business pivots… all of us striving to find the so-called “new normal.” Besides the devastating economic impact, vast structural changes that once seemed unthinkable are becoming commonplace. While some will continue to work remotely and others will find hybrid arrangements, more and more organizations are returning to the physical office. But that does not mean it’s business as usual. For many of us, the office experience has changed forever—both in ways we understand and in ways we cannot yet comprehend. 

The Peoria Magazines team has been wrestling with this issue as well. In 2020, we worked from home, virtualized our events, trimmed expenses, and did what we needed to survive. We met our deadlines and got the work done. Now we’re ready to get back to the office—and a newly reimagined workplace. 

Three Decades of History
For more than 30 years, Peoria Magazines has been highlighting the people, places and things that make our region great. We are a small, locally owned business—a rarity in today’s harsh media landscape. We have continually evolved to meet the needs of our community, and in the wake of a global pandemic, we’re doing it again.

With roots stretching back over three decades, some readers are likely unaware of our story. Peoria Magazines was founded by my father, the late David C. Wright, whose idea for a short, concise bulletin of local business news proved timely and foundational. With precious few business connections, he spent months walking the streets and office buildings of Peoria in the summer of 1989, selling people on the concept. That August, the very first InterBusiness Issues (iBi)—a modest eight-page newsletter—was mailed to a thousand central Illinois businesses.  

It proved successful beyond his wildest dreams. iBi quickly expanded into a full-fledged magazine and my mother, Jan Wright, joined the growing business. They soon launched a second publication, The Peoria Woman, and a few years later added Arts Alive! magazine. Then tragedy struck.                              

Diagnosed with leukemia, my father passed away in 1997, just 42 years old. Virtually no one expected the magazines to continue without him, but somehow Jan was able to pick up the pieces. “I was not sure I could carry on,” she admits. “But there was a core group of Peoria-area leaders who mentored, coached and supported me during that exceptionally difficult time. I am forever grateful to these individuals who were there for us, then and now.” 

With Jan at the helm as publisher and president, Peoria Progress magazine launched in 2002, and Arts Alive! was transformed into Art & Society in 2006—the same year I joined the business. We have continued to expand and evolve ever since: adding new events, enhancing our digital capabilities, and fine-tuning our print products. 

In 2019 we merged iBi and Art & Society into one brand-new publication—Peoria Magazine—while continuing to publish Peoria Progress. We created custom booklets for organizations like the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, CEO Council, Heart of Illinois United Way and Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and launched 309Tix, an online event ticketing service. When 2020 came around, we began working from home, even as our distribution locations dried up and some clients were forced to close their doors. As pandemic weeks turned into pandemic months, we continued to produce a high-quality product. But something was missing…

The act of creating magazines is inherently social. At our best, we are motivated by the spark of collaboration, the building of community, the feeling that we are all in this together. 2020 has proven we can get the job done remotely. Yet we longed for the creative benefits of collaboration and community—coming back together, in person.

Team members from Peoria Magazines, Discover Peoria and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois on a Zoom call, February 16, 2021
Team members from Peoria Magazines, Discover Peoria and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois on a Zoom call, February 16, 2021

Working Towards Discovery
The Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (PACVB) was established in 1980 as the region’s official “Destination Marketing Organization” (DMO). It serves seven counties—Fulton, Marshall, Mason, Peoria, Stark, Tazewell and Woodford—promoting the area to visitors and residents alike. But with tourism and hospitality hit hard by the pandemic, their last year has been traumatic as well. With no events or conventions, restaurants limited to carry-out or delivery, and many establishments closed altogether, they were forced to make difficult decisions, reducing both staff and programs. 

Pandemic or not, 2020 was always going to be a busy year for the PACVB. CEO J.D. Dalfonso had come on board the previous summer, bringing fresh ideas and youthful enthusiasm at a time when the role of the DMO was changing dramatically. “The phrase ‘heads in beds’ has traditionally described our industry, but it has become apparent that it is far more than that,” Dalfonso explains. “To advocate for our entire region, we need not just heads in beds—but more in the stores, torsos through turnstiles, feet in the streets, and cheeks in the seats. As we look to market the entire destination of central Illinois and generate outside tax revenue, our role is to showcase all aspects in which visitors and residents discover our communities.”

Acknowledging the shifting landscape, the organization launched a comprehensive branding initiative to redefine its identity in the community. Then along came COVID-19, and the PACVB instantly became a leading voice disseminating the latest updates on pandemic relief. They created programs to promote local restaurants and worked to help hospitality businesses through this extraordinary challenge. Last July, the organization unveiled its new name and brand: Discover Peoria. While looking toward the future, the new identity builds on a history that stretches back centuries—to the early French explorers and the Indigenous peoples who first discovered the Illinois River Valley.

“We should be proud of our history,” Dalfonso suggests. “We believe it not only helps recruit visitors to discover our region today, but serves as a motivation for residents to rediscover their hometowns. It also has helped bridge marketing campaigns with other organizations—like the EDC and our regional chambers of commerce—to all work together towards discovery.”

In line with its new brand, the PACVB’s annual Visitors Guide was reborn as the Discovery Guide. While retaining the critical mission of visitor attraction, it further embraced residents as well—inviting them to experience the hidden gems and unique destinations in their own backyard. “As our efforts have become more motivational and inspirational, we have been able to share more stories behind our local businesses and community stakeholders,” Dalfonso explains. “This in turn helps showcase our events and experiences in a whole new way.” And new opportunities were just around the corner.

Discover Peoria leadership team: Elle Benway, Director of Experience & Sponsorship; Joshua Albrecht, Chief Marketing Officer; J.D. Dalfonso, President/CEO; C.J. Goddard, Director of Finance & Admin; and Joni Staley, Director of Sales
Discover Peoria leadership team: Elle Benway, Director of Experience & Sponsorship; Joshua Albrecht, Chief Marketing Officer; J.D. Dalfonso, President/CEO; C.J. Goddard, Director of Finance & Admin; and Joni Staley, Director of Sales

Creating a Win-Win
Over the years, Peoria Magazines and the PACVB have worked together often to promote the best of Peoria. “Our mission has always been to celebrate the positive aspects of our region by telling its stories,” Jan explains. “We always wanted to collaborate, not compete.” While various conversations had taken place about expanding these collaborative efforts, the timing was never right. Recently, however, our overlapping goals and missions have grown even more complementary. 

Both of our organizations are locally operated and laser-
focused on the Peoria area. Both of us collaborate regularly with many of the same community partners. When forced to tighten our belts and reinvent ourselves, we both found we had more office space than we needed. And finally, both our Peoria Progress magazine and their Discovery Guide had evolved to very similar places. Clearly a multitude of synergies could be realized by working together. “At the beginning of COVID, I called J.D. to chat about how we could work together more closely,” Jan recalls. “After a few meetings, excitement began to brew.” The outlines of a partnership were taking shape.

Besides sharing office space, Peoria Magazines and Discover Peoria are joining forces to create the next generation of the Discovery Guide. Peoria Progress will be folded into the co-branded publication as our two organizations collaborate on storytelling and design. The first edition will hit the streets in June 2021; the second will arrive just six months later with new and refreshed content. This project is just the beginning as the groundwork is laid for future collaboration opportunities.

As we settle into our new offices, Peoria Magazines is also assessing its resources for the long term. After three decades entrenched in the business, Jan will oversee the transition as we begin a passing of the baton. “I’m proud of our legacy in the Peoria community,” she explains. “I look forward to connecting our team with others and watching them lead the company into the next 30 years. Jonathan’s father would not have imagined its longevity, but would be very proud.”

As I step up under her direction, my wife, Mae Gilliland Wright, will expand her involvement—continuing a process that began over the last year, when she was largely responsible for the successful execution of our virtual events. While never expecting to join the business, Mae’s background in communications and the digital humanities is an ideal fit for our needs moving forward. As director of business development, she will leverage her unique skillset to create new growth opportunities, while continuing to write and manage an array of special projects. Rounding out our talented team is Adam Gray, graphic designer, and Amy Manwaring, office administrator, who will continue in more expansive roles as we forge ahead in 2021 and beyond. 

We are excited about our partnership with Discover Peoria—and eager for the spark of collaboration to be ignited once again. But we won’t be the first organization to reap the benefits of this workplace alliance. 

Jonathan Wright and Mae Gilliland Wright of Peoria Magazines discuss ideas and opportunities with J.D. Dalfonso of Discover Peoria.
Jonathan Wright and Mae Gilliland Wright of Peoria Magazines discuss ideas and opportunities with J.D. Dalfonso of Discover Peoria.

Fruits of Collaboration
Founded in 1999, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois is a one-stop source for arts information in the region, connecting local arts groups and facilitating initiatives such as Sculpture Walk Peoria. Like all nonprofits, ArtsPartners was hit hard by COVID, and last September the organization found a new home in the Discover Peoria offices. “Working in a common space has not only lifted morale and added a sense of comradery, it has also led to the generation of new ideas,” explains Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners executive director. Over the last year, the two organizations have joined forces on a photo contest and the annual Santa Cause Run, co-hosted virtual performances from local musicians, and launched a holiday campaign to promote local restaurants.

“Our collaborative relationship has grown exponentially,” Dalfonso affirms. “Having both entities working together—literally under the same roof—has allowed more ideas to generate at a faster rate than ever before… Our cultures have blended extremely well.”

This proximity has helped them identify ways to work together to cross-promote audiences, engage more people, and more effectively promote the quality of life in Peoria, Gordon adds. “We can be a natural go-to resource for Discover Peoria to help them highlight arts and culture as a vital piece of what makes our region so unique. Conversely, Discover Peoria can connect with people who may never actively seek out information about our arts community.” It’s truly a win-win.

Having made it through the pandemic year, our friends at Discover Peoria are working to help the community recover and rebuild. “Our focus is getting our residents back out to rediscover our communities, while bringing back meetings and conferences in a safe manner,” Dalfonso explains. “Tourism will play a vital role in our economic recovery, as we estimate a shortfall of tourism-related tax revenue in 2020—for Peoria alone—at around $5 million. In the best of times, tourism generates upwards of $680 million in spending across central Illinois, translating to $19 million in tax revenues for our counties and municipalities. We need that back.”

With more organizations returning to the office, the office is being reimagined for the post-COVID era. For us, that means keeping the best parts of office culture, eliminating the inefficiencies, and building on the distinct benefits of in-person proximity. Flexibility will be key—no two organizations will navigate their “new normal” in the same way. 

While COVID did not kill the office, it has certainly transformed it forever. According to a new Steelcase report, “Coming together in the workplace to socialize and collaborate will become the greatest purpose that the new office can fulfill.” As Peoria Magazines joins ArtsPartners and Discover Peoria in our shared office space, this sentiment speaks to the possibilities that await—the proverbial water-cooler conversations that build trust and social capital, those moments of serendipity that casually spill into a new idea for collaboration. That is the kind of post-COVID energy we’re looking for. PM

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