ICVA and Conventions and Professional Organizations and Strategic Planning and Tourism & Hospitality and Health Care & Life Sciences

A new centerpiece for city's convention strategy: medical, science groups

August 3, 2009
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The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association is putting together an all-star corporate consortium to make the city a hub for medical and life sciences conventions, meetings and trade shows.

The ICVA began running the initiative full-speed this year and already has signed deals to bring 40 medical meetings to Indianapolis through 2015, including annual meetings for the American Association of Diabetes Educators in 2012 and the American College of Sports Medicine and American Chemical Society in 2013.

Those three gatherings alone will bring $30 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis, predicted ICVA CEO Don Welsh.

“If you look at the demographics of these conventions and meetings, you can see why it’s such a prime target,” Welsh said. “The economics of these gatherings show us [attendees] buy first-class hotel rooms, pay fair market value for convention space and eat in high-end restaurants.”

Life sciences currently generates as little as 4 percent of Indianapolis’ convention and visitor business, but within a few years Welsh said it could account for 20 percent. Sports is the city’s largest convention and visitor money maker, Welsh said, making up 24 percent of the pie.

A 2006 study by Washington D.C.-based industry analyst D.K. Shifflet and Associates showed the city’s annual visitor spending hitting $3.6 billion.

But the money spent, while considerable, is just the tip of the iceberg. ICVA and its partners in the endeavor hope exposure from the gatherings gives the region further gravitas as a life sciences hub. That, BioCrossroads President David Johnson said, will help build the credibility of companies located here.

“If we could make Indianapolis ground zero for these types of meetings, that would be a tremendous way to show the strengths of this community in a way others in the industry don’t normally think of,” said Johnson, whose organization heads economic development for Indiana’s life sciences initiative.

IUPUI Chancellor Charles Bantz thinks attracting the conventions and meetings to Indianapolis is a critical pillar in making life sciences here known around the world and recruiting the best and brightest students.

If conferences come to Indianapolis, he said it would be natural for medical and life science experts from such places as IUPUI and Lilly to be featured speakers and sit on panels, further raising their profiles and that of the entire region.

“Building the awareness [of Indianapolis] is much more important than I would have believed 20 years ago,” Bantz said. “It’s crucial to give people a reason to be here and this is one way to do that.”

Bantz, who is working with the ICVA on the initiative, said Indianapolis officials have to be bold. “You hear a lot about Hoosier humility,” Bantz said. “Normally, it’s a great quality, but now is not the time for that. We made life sciences a focus, and we have to find a way to make that happen.”

Pillar partners key to success

Welsh saw life sciences and medical meetings boost Seattle, where he worked in a similar role previous to coming to the ICVA last June.

Earlier this year, Welsh hired Ronnie Burt, who worked closely with Johns Hopkins University to build Baltimore’s life sciences and medical convention business.

It’s critical for ICVA to work with a handful of key corporate partners in building the initiative, said Welsh, who partnered in Seattle with the University of Washington medical system and drugmaker Amgen, a California-based company with annual revenue of $15 billion and a strong presence in the western U.S.

Here, Welsh and Burt, ICVA’s senior vice president of sales and services, have put together a consortium that includes BioCrossroads, Eli Lilly and Co., Clarian Health, IUPUI, Elanco and Dow AgroSciences.

“Our partners are the ones that have the contacts and are critical in helping us attract these global organizations,” Welsh said. “We really believe, once we have [global life science companies’] attention, with all the amenities this city has to offer, we can make some significant deals.”

The timing, with the airport midfield terminal opening last November and the Indiana Convention Center expanding, is ideal for such an initiative, Welsh said.

“We’ll have the capacity and infrastructure here to host events that, frankly, we couldn’t before,” Welsh said. “We’re looking at a new horizon.”

When the $275 million convention center expansion opens in late 2010, ICVA will have a total of 1.2 million square feet to fill at the convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium—475,600 square feet more than now.

Competition growing

Along with Seattle and Baltimore, the prime competitors for life sciences and medical events are Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Diego, ICVA officials said.

Bonnie Grant, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Life Sciences Congress, a new division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, said, “Quite a few cities are awakening to the potential economic impact of life sciences-related convention and meetings business. The cities that get a foothold in this sector early will clearly gain a big advantage in this fast-growing sector.”

With hundreds of million of dollars in annual economic impact at stake, John Livengood, president of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana, said the potential shows why ICVA’s marketing budget is so important.

“We have to make sure these people have the resources to do their job …,” Livengood said. “We support using the hotel tax to promote initiatives like this.”

ICVA sent a 14-person delegation to one of the nation’s largest gatherings of life sciences companies—Bio Convention—which was held in Atlanta in May. There, Burt said, ICVA officials made appointments to showcase the city to 34 organizations, including the American Occupational Therapy Association, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Genetics Society of America, American Medical Colleges and the American Society of Health System Pharmacists.

“We have some very solid leads,” Burt said, “and in some cases we’re already working on proposals.”

Most of the medical and life sciences organizations ICVA officials are talking to had little idea what Indianapolis had to offer, Burt said.

Burt and Welsh aren’t intimidated by the increasing competition.

“With the convention center expansion, new midfield terminal and Lucas Oil Stadium, we have a great story to tell right now,” Burt said. “We have something going on in this city that isn’t going on anywhere else.”

Since the economic downturn has all but stifled construction of convention centers and major hotels across the U.S., Indianapolis should have some of the newest, best amenities for years to come. And once Indianapolis earns the business, Welsh is confident the city will be able to retain it.•

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