Not so long ago, Indianapolis was passed over time and again for conventions and corporate meetings despite a massive expansion of the Indiana Convention Center and a new 1,005-room, four-star hotel, as well as a new airport terminal that was the talk of the aviation industry and a colossal, retractable-roof stadium that hosted the 2012 Super Bowl.
Why? Air quality.
That all changed June 1, 2012, when citywide restrictions against indoor public smoking were expanded to include bowling alleys, hotel rooms, taxi cabs and most bars. The only exemptions were tobacco shops, hookah bars, existing not-for-profit private clubs and downtown’s off-track betting parlor.
That single law, said Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops, opened the door to a cluster of gatherings big and small.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Hoops said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that over time this could mean tens of millions of dollars in economic impact to the city.”
The strict smoking ban was passed following months of intense debate with owners of some bars, bowling alleys and other businesses who warned it would hurt sales. But whatever losses the businesses might have sustained are seen as potential gains for the hospitality industry.
Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a California-based not-for-profit, started the Smokefree Meetings Campaign in 2004 to encourage organizations to host meetings only in smoke-free cities, and
dozens of organizations—including some of the nation’s largest health care groups—joined the campaign.
In the 17 months since the wider Indianapolis ban was enacted, Visit Indy officials have wasted little time reaching out to organizers of more than 90 conventions that wouldn’t have considered Indianapolis. Groups like the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association now have Indianapolis on their radar screens for gatherings.
“I could see it happening now, a gathering in Indianapolis,” said Danielle Patterson, government relations director in the local office of the American Heart Association. “With all the amenities this city has, the compact, clean downtown and the new strict smoking ban, it has definitely opened our eyes to this city.”
The American Heart Association is no small fish. Its annual meeting of scientists and researchers is one of the most sought-after in the country, with 25,000 attendees and an economic impact of more than $25 million. That would make it one of Indianapolis’ four biggest conventions.
A growing number of groups and organizations refuse to meet in cities lacking strong no-smoking laws, said Lindsay Grace, manager of mission services and advocacy for American Lung Association in Indiana. Grace said her group was among the myriad organizations that scratched Indianapolis off their lists prior to June 1, 2012.
”We have to walk the walk,” Patterson said. “Everybody in the health services field felt the same way. Meeting in a city with laws like [Indianapolis had] would have stood in contrast to so much of what this organization is about.”
The gains for Indianapolis’ convention business will extend far beyond health and wellness organizations, said Jay Gladden, dean of the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at IUPUI. Companies in such fields as technology and manufacturing are increasingly mindful about the harm of smoking.
Hoops said youth and sports-related events, meetings and conventions also will be easier to land.
Even NCAA and Big Ten event organizers in recent years had begun to complain about Indianapolis’ lax smoking laws, hospitality officials said. Bars and restaurants designated as fan headquarters during the Big Ten tournament turned off fans from such schools as Michigan State University, Grace said.
Gladden, who moved from Massachusetts to Indianapolis in 2009, was amazed “at how difficult it was to avoid smokers.”
“It’s definitely something a meeting planner would have noticed on a site visit. Indianapolis was seen as behind the times.”
Dirk Ebener, CEO of Atlanta-based NuernbergMesse North America, which represents more than 100 trade shows globally, said the smoking issue is as important to overseas travelers as it is to Americans. The American Coatings Show, which Ebener’s company organized here in 2012, attracted attendees from 69 countries.
Smoking and air quality are some of the more important considerations on his company’s six-page site questionnaire, he said, because a city’s smoking laws have become a front-burner issue with most convention and meeting organizers in the last six to seven years.
“The presence of smoking speaks directly to the overall cleanliness of a city,” Ebener said. “It makes a big difference when I don’t have to encounter it at a place like the airport, the first place a visitor experiences, or while waiting at a taxi stand.”
While Grace said most in the public health industry are aware of the changes in Indianapolis’ smoking laws, she thinks Visit Indy could raise general awareness with targeted marketing to other groups.
Visit Indy hasn’t led with a smoke-free message in its paid marketing, but rather used the fact during one-on-one sales calls to potential conventions, specifically those the organization wasn’t able to bid on hosting pre-ordinance, Hoops said.
The city has yet to sign a convention deal due primarily to its stricter law, but Hoops said Visit Indy is in ongoing discussions with 17 of the 90-plus organizations that hadn’t previously considered Indianapolis.
As competition for conventions grows, any barrier a city can remove to winning business becomes that much more important, said Jonathan Day, a professor of hospitality at Purdue University.
“Look at the numbers. It’s ultra-competitive,” Day said. “So if there’s a factor that causes a big block of business to turn its back on your city entirely, that puts you at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Not having a strict smoking ban is that kind of factor.”
Competition is indeed intense.
Since 2000, convention center space has grown 35.4 percent, but total convention and trade show attendance has been flat, according to Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research. President Douglas L. Ducate said the competition among host cities trying to land trade shows and conventions is more competitive now than it has been at any time in 45 years.
“A city’s smoking law is no longer considered to be a small distinction,” Ebener said. “With a growing audience, it’s a major factor.”•