Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Conventions and Indiana Convention Center and CEDIA Expo and Tourism & Hospitality

Convention Center President Bob Bedell to retire

January 7, 2008

Bob Bedell worked behind the scenes for months--if not years--to make the case for expanding the Indiana Convention Center and building a 1,000-room hotel nearby.

But someone else will have to take the next step: filling both venues with visitors who can keep Indianapolis' $3.6 billion hospitality industry thriving.

The 60-year-old Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association president has said he'll retire at the end of June, years before either project opens its doors. ICVA will launch a national search for his successor, given the high stakes.

"Several people have come up to me and asked, 'How is this going to affect things?'" said John Livengood, president of the Indiana Hospitality & Lodging Association. "I really hope that the powers that be will go out and find the very best person in the country" to replace Bedell.

"We don't want to mess around with [the expansions] by not having the right person in this key role," he said.

Bedell would have fit the bill. In fact, he'd rather spend his time selling event planners on Indianapolis as a destination than convincing elected officials of the need to expand.

But the convincing took longer than expected, and his life took an unexpected turn in the meantime. In 2003--a year after Bedell took the helm of ICVA--his then-35-year-old son Brian was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Brian died 21 months later.

"I had a lot of difficulty in my life ... with my son's illness and passing," Bedell said. "My priority from this point forward is my family."

Since 2003, Bedell has welcomed four grandchildren who range in age from 8 months to 5 years. He said he always preached that family comes first, but that isn't always possible with a demanding job.

"If I thought I could work 70 or 80 hours a week between now and when the facilities are opened, I'd do it because that's what it's going to take for it to be successful," he said. But "that's not what I want to do for the next three years."

The $275 million convention center expansion and $250 million hotel project are expected to be complete in 2010.

St. Louis scenario?

Bedell already knew a lot about Indianapolis when he arrived in February 2002, fresh from a stint leading the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission. He had worked at ICVA from 1986 to 1993 before leaving to take the St. Louis job.

He picked up some valuable experience there, overseeing an expansion of the America's Center convention complex and helping to sell the idea of a $277 million hotel complex--backed with $200 million in public subsidies--across the street.

He and other backers argued that if the city built the right facilities, business would come.

"You can build a convention hotel in the middle of a cornfield, and if it has the right space and it's the right quality, it will attract conventions," Bedell told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2000.

But that didn't happen in St. Louis. Since opening in late 2002 and early 2003, the Renaissance Grand and Renaissance Suites have struggled, not bringing in enough revenue to even cover loan payments until mid-2007.

Though that project floundered after his departure, Bedell said the St. Louis situation is different from what he's leaving behind in Indianapolis.

"What St. Louis was hoping for was that the expansion of the convention center and the building of that hotel would turn around their downtown," he said. "They still had a downtown that wasn't very attractive for conventions, trade shows and special events."

That's not the case in Indianapolis. In fact, existing demand for additional space at the Indiana Convention Center was a key part of the case backers made to expand it.

Another problem with the St. Louis project was that the hotel was built in an existing structure and included only about half the meeting space needed to support its 1,081 rooms, said Rob Hunden, president of Chicago-based hotel consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners.

"They could usually only get 50 to 60 percent of their rooms sold before they were full in terms of their other hotel-amenity capacity," Hunden said. "Not to mention the fact that the hotel opened right after 9/11."

"That scenario is not going to play out in Indianapolis," he said.

Good thing.

"The 'build it and they will come' philosophy doesn't work [here]," said Livengood, the Indiana Hospitality & Lodging Association president. Bedell did a great job selling the city, he said, and the pressure will be on his successor to be just as active.

Leaving in good shape

State lawmakers approved the convention center expansion--along with a $625 million stadium to replace the RCA Dome--in 2005, after Bedell and others made the case for additional space.

Their evidence: Two of the city's largest trade shows, Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association's fall expo and Performance Racing Industry's annual gathering, had outgrown Indianapolis--but promised to return to an expanded center. The hotel project, to be funded in part with $48.5 million in city-backed loans, won approval last year.

Despite the city's progress toward meeting those big customers' needs, their promises are now in doubt.

CEDIA agreed to return to Indianapolis for four years starting in fall 2010, but said in July that its trade show has grown too large for even the expanded center. Indianapolis is in the running for its new spring show in 2012. PRI leaders have signed a letter of agreement to return in 2011, but that show's producer has only said he's "hopeful" the show will, in fact, return.

Expansion proponents also predicted a larger convention center could lure as many as 28 new events.

While that's an ambitious goal, observers said they aren't worried that Bedell's departure will have a negative impact on booking the convention center and hotel.

"[Bedell's] legacy is going to be a positive one in Indianapolis," Hunden said. "As long as the hotel doesn't go union, the economics on it look pretty good."

State Sen. Luke Kenley, who drafted the bill to finance the Lucas Oil Stadium and convention center construction, is likewise unfazed.

"[Bedell] has put his career into making this a success," Kenley said. "He's been a big asset to us ... but there's nobody that is irreplaceable in any situation."

And by laying the groundwork for growth, Bedell has left his successor well-positioned to succeed, said IUPUI Tourism Department Chairman Sotiris Avgoustis.

"I think he laid a strong foundation and that is the best time for a leader to go--it's better to go out when he's on top, where [Bedell] has the respect and trust of staff and the outside community," Avgoustis said.

While the big projects are the flashy part of Bedell's legacy, observers said his less notable accomplishments are what helped the local hospitality and tourism market become a $3.6-billion-a-year industry.

He beefed up the ICVA's internal marketing staff and oversaw an aggressive push to go after the leisure and small-meeting markets, for example.

Since he is stepping down well before the convention center opens, Bedell said his successor will have plenty of opportunity to make a mark. The full-force convention sales effort for 2010 and beyond is just now getting under way.

"If I left a year and a half from now and the table was set, then it forever would be credited to me for its success," Bedell said.

Instead, his successor will get the kudos--or blame.

The next chapter

Bedell said that once he steps down in June, he will try to slow down a bit and see if "real retirement fits."

His wife, Jenny, retired 18 months ago from her job as an executive with Starwood Hotels. But it didn't stick and she emerged from retirement after only three months, launching a career in residential real estate with F.C. Tucker.

"My chemistry is different and I think, potentially, it will agree with me," Bedell said. He plans to volunteer, spend more time with family, and play golf.

Though originally from Boston, Bedell said he will stay in Indianapolis and any return to the work force as a part-timer or consultant wouldn't be for a competitor.

"I consider this my hometown," he said. "I love the city and I can't wait to see it all come together."

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