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The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association Changes Strategy,
Gets Creative, to Fill the Expanded Indiana Convention Center

By Erika D. Smith, The Indianapolis StarMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Septtember 02, 2010 - --On the southwest side of Downtown, just across from the Canal, stands a gleaming, blue, inescapable reminder that Indianapolis' tourism industry is about to change.

Big time.

In less than six months, the JW Marriott hotel will open, dumping 1,005 more rooms on a market that's still reeling from a recession-driven drop in travel and spending. At the same time, the expanded Indiana Convention Center will open. It'll have twice the space but won't have twice as many conventions to fill it.

And the agency that is largely responsible for booking both may be working with about the same amount of money it did the year before. On Monday, the Capital Improvement Board allocated $9.1 million for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association for its 2011 budget -- $100,000 more than last year.

2011 will be a tough year, tourism officials say. If it weren't for the Super Bowl, 2012 would be a tough year, too.

But "tough" doesn't mean "disaster." It means a change in strategy -- and getting creative.

"What we've had to do is get a little more tactical with our bookings," said Don Welsh, president of the ICVA.

The ICVA says it is still booking lots of conventions and, by extension, filling lots of hotel rooms in Downtown and other parts of the Indianapolis area. Some recent convention bookings include the American Football Coaches Association, with 7,000 attendees; the American Library Association, 11,000 attendees; and the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, 25,000 attendees.

The problem is many of those conventions won't come to town until 2013 or 2014.

That's because conventions are generally booked five to 10 years in advance. The larger the convention, the earlier it's booked.

Therefore, many of the conventions scheduled for next year were booked in the mid-2000s -- a time when plans for the expanded Indiana Convention Center weren't solid.

"Ideally, if we had the specs a couple years earlier, we could've booked a few more (conventions)," Welsh said. "But it is what it is, and we're trying to make up for lost time."

So the ICVA is trying new things.

It has added three people to its sales staff, which now has 17 people, including five who are working from out of state to sign up large trade associations for conventions. Three sales reps are trying to book events specifically for 2011.

The ICVA also is going after the corporate meetings market.

This is a relatively new strategy because meetings were once considered small potatoes. A meeting typically takes up 10 to 50 hotel rooms, while a convention can use up to 1,000 rooms.

But Indianapolis now has short-term needs, and meetings can be booked weeks or months, not years, in advance.

And even though the economy still isn't the greatest, more and more companies are spending money to meet for a few days. For the first two quarters of 2011, bookings for corporate meetings are up 5.2 percent, said Robert Gilbert, president of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.

"Meetings have to happen," he said. "It was just a matter of when."

Still, the city has a long way to go when it comes to booking meetings.

According to market research firm Rubicon, Indianapolis ranked last among 25 cities for occupancy rates for meetings booked from August 2010 to August 2011.

The report does not necessarily mean that Indianapolis booked fewer meetings or hotel rooms than the other cities, such as Atlanta, Detroit and St. Louis. Rather, the report is a measure of improved performance. So, for example, Detroit, which ranked No. 3 on Rubicon's list, may have had 10 meetings on the books in August 2010 and 35 in August 2011. Indianapolis may have had 40 in August 2010 and 50 in August 2011. With those hypothetical numbers, Detroit would rank higher than Indianapolis.

So, in short, the Rubicon report is a measure of whether a city is doing better or worse than it was last year. But it's also an indicator of the tough competition among cities for booking corporate meetings.

"It's a steal-market-share game," Gilbert said.

That goes for citywide conventions, too.

Where that leaves Indianapolis -- and specifically the ICVA -- is having to work harder than ever to book conventions and meetings.

"It would be a stretch to say we would be meeting the demand under normal circumstances," Welsh said.

The JW Marriott is big and a constant reminder of the space it has to fill. When that hotel opens on Feb. 4, it will push the number of rooms Downtown to 7,105, up from 6,100.

But Turner Woodard, who recently bought the Canterbury Hotel and plans to renovate it before the Super Bowl, said he's not too concerned about a glut of hotel rooms on the market. At least not in the long term.

"It's all going to be fine," he said, "but we have to do our work."

With just $9.1 million from the CIB, assuming the City-County Council approves its budget, funding is still a concern, Welsh said.

But at least through 2012, the ICVA will get additional money from the city, the Dean and Barbara White Foundation and ICVA members. That will push the agency's budget to nearly $13.7 million.

Going forward, though, Welsh said he would like to get more money from the CIB -- a reflection of the huge marketing job ahead for the ICVA. Accordingly, he said he would like to raise the goal for filling hotel rooms from about 489,000 room nights this year to about 850,000 by 2015.

"It's not going to be easy," Welsh said, "but we're on track."

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To see more of the Indianapolis Star or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.indystar.com/.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Indianapolis Star

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