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City looks to tourists to supplement convention business

February 12, 2011

Put yourself in the shoes of Indianapolis tourism promoters and ask yourself how you’d handle their challenge.

They’re charged with filling seven NFL fields of convention space that opened last month, and White Lodging, the Merrillville-based developer of the sparkling 1,004-room JW Marriott and Marriott Place hotel complex, is counting on them to help fill rooms.

But the lengthy lead time for recruiting conventions and trade shows means a few years might pass before the cavernous space bustles at capacity.

In the interim, the promoters’ only other serious option is to appeal to what the hospitality industry calls leisure travelers, otherwise known as tourists.

Leisure spending, though, is down nationally due to the economy. And the typical tourist hasn’t gotten the sports marketing message that Indianapolis is a great choice. Alongside destinations like New York and Orlando, Indianapolis is still considered, well, India-no-place.

The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association is attacking both problems in anticipation of bringing smiles and profits to everyone from hotel magnate Dean White to the smallest bistro owner.

“If you live here, you don’t necessarily think all the attractions—things like White River State Park, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, NCAA and Children’s Museum—are major drawing cards,” said ICVA Senior Vice President of Marketing Warren Wilkinson. “But they are.

“We think we have all the assets to be a player in the leisure travel market, and really grow the economic impact from that leisure segment in the coming years.”

Juiced marketing

The ICVA doesn’t know how much leisure travel contributes to the $3.6 billion in revenue thought to be generated locally each year by tourism.

However, last year the ICVA spent a record $1.2 million—up from $504,000 in 2009—on television, radio, print and Web advertising in Chicago; St. Louis; Louisville and Lexington, Ky.; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; and Peoria and Champaign, Ill., in a massive campaign aimed at tourists. This year, the ICVA has $1.3 million earmarked for leisure advertising.

A major initiative of former ICVA CEO Don Welsh was to produce “network quality” TV ads featuring the area, to nearly triple the reach of the leisure ad campaign to 11 cities, and to extend the campaign’s length to 22 weeks from 11.

Welsh left the ICVA in December to head up the convention business for Chicago, but ICVA officials plan to continue the push.

The ad campaign is welcomed by local hotels and restaurants, said John Livengood, president of the Indiana Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

“It’s a critical part of the effort to bring visitors to the city and region and make the additions to our downtown and other areas pay off,” Livengood said.

The juiced-up marketing initiative is paying big dividends, ICVA officials say.

An ICVA study showed the four-month ad blitz last summer reached 3.2 million homes and generated 379,000 leisure visits to the city, up from 225,000 in 2009.

Tourist spending increased 10 percent in 2010 to $711 per visitor. And the campaign accounted for 559,000 paid hotel room nights—49 percent at downtown hotels, 33 percent in outlying Marion County, and 18 percent outside Marion County.

James Wallis, ICVA’s chief financial officer, said every $1 spent on the campaign realized a “$225 return on investment.”

The biggest payoff came from the Chicago market, Wallis said, where 218,273, or 57 percent, of leisure trips to central Indiana originated. Those visits generated $170.3 million, or 64 percent of all leisure spending in the Indianapolis market in 2010.

“Typically, you think of people from this area traveling to Chicago for business or pleasure,” Wallis said. “So it’s nice to turn the tables on that, and it’s an important part of our business plan—given the size of the Chicago market to draw upon—to do that on a regular basis.”

Mixing more tourists into Indianapolis’ traditionally heavy concentration of business travelers is smart for several reasons, experts say.

Leisure travelers often spend money at different outlets than business travelers, spreading the economic impact among local businesses, said Mark Eble, a hotel consultant and Midwest regional vice president for San Francisco-based PKF Consulting Corp. They also tend to book trips within the calendar year in which they take them, meaning a city can cash in quicker while awaiting the long-term payoff of conventions.

Heywood Sanders, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor and author of several studies on travel, said, “Economic downturns also tend to affect business and leisure travelers somewhat differently. So while one of those segments is down, the other could be stable or even up, and vice versa, for a variety of reasons.”

Changing minds

Part of ICVA’s ad campaign attempts to change outsider mind-sets about central Indiana.

“We think we have an impressive, affordable package to offer,” ICVA’s Wilkinson said. “We’re aggressively going after the leisure market and we’re confident it will pay off.”

In addition to spotlighting the city’s amenities and attractions, the campaign stresses Indianapolis’ central location and relative affordability, factors local tourism officials say makes the city even more attractive in the wake of the recession.

“There is some merit to that logic,” said Jay Gladden, dean of the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management Department at IUPUI. “People these days who might not be able to afford that big trip might opt for a vacation at a closer, more affordable location. We’ve definitely seen more of that in the last three years.”

ICVA officials have appealed to the Capital Improvement Board—which funds 70 percent of its $14 million annual budget—to help continue funding for marketing efforts.

The ICVA in 2010 also secured two large grants to fuel marketing in surrounding states. A $1.5 million grant from the city and a $5.4 million grant from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation Inc. are being used over three years starting in 2010 to support advertising to lure leisure and corporate travelers.

Dean White is the founder of White Lodging.

The majority of the grant will go toward attracting leisure travelers.•

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