Don Welsh is quickly making a name for himself as a change agent. Though few knew what to think when Welsh announced he was
leaving Seattle to become Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association CEO, he's shown he didn't come here to simply
down his career.
Welsh, 52, took over the reins of ICVA from local hospitality industry veteran Bob Bedell in August. Since then, he has added a senior vice president of marketing and communications to the ICVA's local team and is bolstering the association's staff in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. He is leading an effort to roll out a branding campaign in the first quarter of 2009, and has made no secret of his plans to wrestle business away from the nation's biggest convention cities.
Before becoming CEO of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, Welsh held executive positions with United Airlines, Horizon Air, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., West Hotels and Resorts, and Helms Briscoe, a national meeting planning firm
Welsh's experience has left him with no shortage of ideas about how to take this city to the next level in the convention tourism game — and even to rid it of "professional panhandlers." The Baltimore native promises not to let the struggling economy get in the way of growth, and remains confident that he and his staff can double Indianapolis' convention and tourism business within 10 years.
IBJ: What drew you to Indianapolis and to take your position with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association?
WELSH: It was the opportunity. I've determined at this stage in my life I'm good at things when they're either building or broken. Clearly, Indianapolis is in a major building mode.
I came back almost on a whim at the invitation of the recruiter working on the job. Bob Bedell took me on a two-hour tour, seeing the new airport when I came in, coming into the city and seeing Lucas Oil Stadium, and seeing the plans for the Dome to come down and all the new hotel projects.
I saw, which I didn't see in Seattle to a similar extent, the business community and the whole community understood the value and importance of tourism and hospitality, and that was one of the driving elements. And I love sports. To be around sports to the extent we are, that was the icing on the cake.
IBJ: What are some of the things that have most surprised you about Indianapolis since first interviewing for this position?
WELSH: Having watched Indianapolis from the hotel and [tourism] industries, it always had an image that sort of stood out on its own as a great Midwestern convention destination that had all the core essentials, all the bells and whistles you would need. That was reiterated when I came out here.
This city has truly been designed and built in the past and as we go forward as this great urban gathering point, not only for conventions and sports events but for people who work and live here. I was pleasantly surprised at how big the downtown has gotten in terms of offerings of hotels, restaurants and retail, and other attractions.
I've also been pleasantly surprised with the depth of arts and culture here, and I love the fact that we're getting a more urban downtown population because I think that brings a nice dynamic that's not just conventions, but people living and working in downtown.
IBJ: How do you rate Indianapolis right now as a convention and tourism destination?
WELSH: To use a baseball analogy, with the new product, it has moved from a triple-A minor-league team to a major-league expansion team. When we get all the new products on line here, we will be as good as any of the mainstays.
What I'm saying is, we have a great product now in terms of hotel and convention space, attractions, restaurants. As we begin adding new elements to it, we will be a city that can compete with Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver. Right now, we have a product that is equal to if not better than most in the country.
IBJ: What does Indianapolis need to take its tourism efforts to the next level ... and what is the next level?
WELSH: With the new airport, Lucas Oil Stadium, the Convention Center addition ... we have great, great facilities. With $3 billion-plus of new product coming into the marketplace, we have to make sure we have the proper amount of funds to market all these great new products. We have a finite period of time ... 2009, 2010, 2011.
With how we develop our brand, we have a two- to three-year window that will clearly position our city for years to come. We have to make sure we have the right sales strategy and the right brand. A lot of cities have better marketing and a better brand than the product they have. In the case of Indianapolis right now, we have a product that is better than the brand positioning we have right now.
We need to execute a solid sales strategy, get the right type of customers in here, make sure we have the right type of marketing plan that reflects the depth of the community, and have the adequate funding to get the message out in the marketplace.
IBJ: What is the long-term potential of this city — 10 to 12 years out — in terms of tourism and convention business?
WELSH: Right now, we are about a $3.6 billion industry. I think within the next 10 years, we'll be between $8 [billion] to $10 billion. I think we'll more than double the business. Within the next five years, there will be another major announcement of another 1,000-plus room convention hotel somewhere in the city because demand will warrant it. There's a dual strategy right now — retain and take care of what you've got, and at the same time go after new business full speed.
For the most part, you're not going to book a 20,000- or 30,000-person convention for the next two years. But we have the potential to let people come in and see what the city will be when everything is completed in 2011 and 2012.
The calling card for this city leading up the [NCAA basketball] regionals in 2009, the men's Final Four in 2010, the women's Final Four in 2011 — the real city will be totally unveiled, because it will be completely finished by then — will be the Super Bowl. I think the Super Bowl in 2012 will serve as a catalyst for people to say, "Wow, I never knew Indianapolis had that much to offer." I think the NFL has been so cautious of where they hold their event, as is the NCAA, I think that will be a testament to what this city has become.
IBJ: What would you tell the average resident of this community who asks why this region needs the tourism convention business to grow?
WELSH: When you're a $3.6 billion industry producing $900 million in taxes, that's the one thing any [convention and visitors association] has the responsibility to continue to convey to people. When a convention comes to town and we are delivering business to the Indiana Convention Center, it benefits the entire state.
That's money that goes to support initiatives in every county. It also brings jobs. We have 66,000 people who are employed in some way shape or form in hospitality and tourism. That's a key driver. We're in the bottom 10 percent as a state in tourism spending [by the government]. That's a sad statement, because if you look at Illinois and other border states, and you look at what they're spending to promote their states, Indiana has as much if not more, and we need to be spending and creating more awareness not only in Indianapolis, but I believe in the state as well.
IBJ: What are some of the things you've seen work in Seattle and other cities you've worked in that you think could be effective in Indianapolis in terms of growing the convention and tourism business?
WELSH: There are a couple of initiatives that we have definitely put in our 2009 plan for now and in the future, and that really involve the whole bio and life sciences area. When you have companies like Lilly here and you see the bio-science initiative being done by not only Marion County but the region in general, I think that helps define an area of growth for us as well.
If you look at that market segment, I can tell you right now, people like [Eli Lilly President and CEO] John Lechleiter and [IUPUI Chancellor] Charles Bantz and Clarian CEO Dan Evans ... if you talk to them, they can't wait to begin bringing in scientists and researchers and doctors. We have the facilities, and that's a specific market segment we're going to be going after in conjunction with the universities and the private sector.
Education is another segment. With a campus like IUPUI and the importance our state plays in education, there are a lot of education-based groups we're going to go after, too.
IBJ: Is there more the city can do in terms of sports?
WELSH: The mayor has some initiatives to really start looking at amateur sports. What we're looking at is, how do we take advantage of youth soccer, lacrosse, basketball and all these great things that take place that are a year-round industry in a lot of cities?
We have great facilities here, so we're looking at how we can introduce new product or add to current product to that amateur sports market that is so viable.
Being a soccer dad, my daughter was on a travel team when I was living in Seattle. We'd take six or eight road trips a year, two nights, 20 or 30 rooms per team, 50 or 60 teams coming in at a time. That is a very lucrative source of business, and I do think clearly Indianapolis is poised for that.
IBJ: You're making some changes at ICVA. Why do you feel ICVA needs some shaking up?
WELSH: We've been fortunate, we have a lot of deep-tenured people here. Now, all of a sudden, we're moving to a different level we've never been at before where we've gone from 300,000 square feet of exhibition space to almost 800,000 square feet of exhibition space.
If you don't have a certain experience level or reference point to get to that point, you sometimes need a different skill set. Ninety-plus percent of the team will remain in place here, but some key functions and some things we've done in the past that in many cases were done internally, we're going to begin pushing some of those out.
We're going to begin working with outside companies we haven't worked with in the last decade or so. We're also going to make some adjustments at our Chicago and Washington, D.C., offices to get the right people with the right experience in place.
IBJ: What conventions that we can't accommodate now are on the top of the wish list?
WELSH: There have been two in particular that we have lost due to space constraints: the Performance Racing Industry and the [Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association]. There are plenty of other potential customers around the country that have been too big for us in the past. We have a hit list, and that's why we are bolstering up our Washington, D.C., office and the Chicago office.
One thing we have to do here, though, is realize that if a customer has not been here in the last year or they've never been here, they tend to put us in the same cluster as St. Louis, Louisville or Kansas City, this Midwest group. So we have to get potential customers here. We hear it from clients all the time, that you can't do the city justice by a sales call there. We have to get people here.
IBJ: How optimistic are you that you can get some of the biggest conventions back that the city has lost?
Welsh: I have no preconceived ideas. I am going to do whatever I can personally to reach out to these customers and see what potential exists. I won't feel I've done my job until I meet personally with them and talk to them. At the same time, I'll be personally sitting down with new potential customers that our sales team is bringing to the table.
Our Convention Center does a phenomenal job of servicing its customers very well. Once they get in and know the services, the city and all the downtown hotel, restaurants, retailers and other attractions will sell themselves.
IBJ: What are the biggest and most immediate challenges facing the ICVA?
WELSH: No. 1, quickly getting some of these jobs filled that are critical as we go forward. No. 2, getting our brand strategy in line in terms of the new brand and a brand strategy that can grow as the products come on line.
Funding to get our message out in the marketplace is critical. Funding that can be compressed over the next three or four years to give us an incremental $3 [million] or $4 million to talk about these new products, realizing what we do over the next three or four years will have a decade-long impact.
And the other thing is, we need to understand that we have these doughnut counties around Marion County, and I think clearly we need to make sure we work from a regional standpoint to showcase this region. The worst thing I think could ever happen is that we start comparing counties against each other. We need to work together as a state and as a region. We all benefit that way.
IBJ: What can you tell us about the new branding campaign that will be rolled out the first quarter of 2009?
WELSH: I have come up with my own interim tag line: "America's Premier Convention and Sports City." That's something that I've been using. We have the current brand, "Indianapolis, so easy to do so much," and that was very relevant.
With the branding campaign, I don't want to be premature. We're putting together requests for proposals. In the next four to six weeks, we'll start having discussions with local ad agencies to begin talking about their perception of Indianapolis and the city's selling attributes.
But clearly, we have a lot of things to sell and market here. We have to think about how we can take this great bundled package and communicate it properly when consumers are bombarded with advertising and marketing messages.
IBJ: Will you definitely use a local ad agency on this account?
WELSH: Hopefully, we will use a local advertising agency on this campaign. It is our intention to do so.
IBJ: How much will the city's convention and tourism business be affected by the economy in 2009 and 2010?
WELSH: In 2009 and 2010, we will probably be in a retention strategy. One of the things we'll face is that the conventions will come, but we may see a dropoff in attendance. With the FFA, last year's attendance was 55,000 and this year it almost broke 53,000. That was a minimal fall-off. But I do think we're going to make sure that we as a community give tools and resources to associations to encourage members to come.
We need to be flexible on hotel pricings and the type of offerings we have. We need to make sure the price value is always talked about. We need to be super-aggressive and capture as much new business as we can.
IBJ: How much of a problem will it be to bring in convention business during the construction process?
WELSH: The good news is, you have that separation where the RCA Dome is. It should have minimal impact on the current building and current customers. All the meeting rooms on Maryland Street are in the process of being completed. I think the work can be somewhat isolated. Any time you have a major foundation being dug out and a new one put in, you're going to have the issues of construction equipment and noise, dust and dirt and those types of things, but I do think they will have a way to confine that.
The other challenge you have in a market with a lot of construction going on — because a lot of times there are delays in certain construction projects —there's some hesitancy by certain organizations to book a city when you have new construction. They're going to say, "OK, if you are planning to open in December of 2010, I'll talk to you in June of 2011." We need to make sure we keep current and future customers up to speed on our construction schedules.
IBJ: How will you handle the perception that the construction project could be troublesome for prospective convention clients?
WELSH: You have to have almost real-time Web availability to show people where the construction stands. If you have any potential delays, you have to tell customers and potential customers now. Somehow, we're going to need to be creative. We have a small office on the 12th floor of the Pan Am Building that overlooks the area. So we can take planners up there to show them what it will look like. It just has to be very proactive communication.
IBJ: What's your assessment of the downtown hotel situation?
WELSH: I think we have one of the best downtown clusters of all the major brands that customers look for. We have limited service properties that give customers the variant ranges of rates that are important.
The brands we have — like Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and Sheraton — add value to this community. When you start looking at Indianapolis now and in the future, if we are competing with cities like Chicago and Boston, Denver and Minneapolis, in some cases those same hotel brands in those cities can be $100 higher per night, if not higher.
I do think the hotel package we have in downtown Indianapolis is outstanding. Its proximity to our meeting space, retail and restaurant is second to none.
IBJ: Do you have enough hotel rooms?
WELSH: Once we get into 2011 and 2012, we are going to have a real good indication whether we have the right mix of hotel rooms to meeting and exhibition space. I think in the next five years, you'll see some announcement of a major 1,000-room convention hotel in this downtown to further complement what we have.
IBJ: You have mentioned a concern with panhandlers downtown. How bad do you think that problem is, and what do you think can be done to deal with it?
WELSH: I think first of all, from an image standpoint, it's a definite issue that we're dealing with. What I'm most pleased about in my 90 days here is seeing the collective effort by Mayor Ballard and his team, the Indianapolis Police Department, the many business and civic leaders saying, "We know it's a multi-pronged issue. We know there are people on the streets that need medical attention, food and shelter."
But the ones I'm seeing on the streets, in many cases I would term them professional panhandlers, and these are the type of people that have a negative impact on the image of a community. The panhandlers can be a bit disruptive to both convention attendees and individual tourists, people coming into the region with their families. It's just not what you'd expect from Indianapolis as a world-class city. I'm pleased there's a lot of conversation taking place to begin addressing this issue and understanding the complexity of the issue.
IBJ: How would you define a professional panhandler?
WELSH: One that leaves their home or apartment in the morning and is fully aware of the conventions that are in town for that day. They and their friends get together and map out the day and their locations that they are going to be, and then they deploy.
They know where the meetings are, when they're beginning and when they're ending, and strategically position themselves to ask for funds from people as they pass by.