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Indianapolis 'raising the game' for tourism

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Lackluster economy be darned, Indianapolis' tourism trade gained ground in 2008. And the city's new head cheerleader has even higher hopes for this year and beyond.

About 22 million people visited Indianapolis last year—up 5 percent from 2007, according to new data from the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association—and opened their wallets despite the nation's financial woes, giving the local economy an estimated $3.6 billion boost.

That's good, but not nearly good enough for ICVA CEO Don Welsh. Welsh, who took over the tourism group in August, wants to double the industry's local impact in the next 10 years.

So, this afternoon, he's convening 600 movers and shakers from the hospitality world for a pep rally of sorts, celebrating their mutual success and urging the team to keep fighting.

The city's new tourism cheer: We're "raising the game."

That's the mantra behind a new branding strategy ICVA is developing with the help of local advertising agency Young & Laramore. Welsh planned to unveil the branding vision at this afternoon's meeting.

It's not quite "What happens in Vegas ..." but the philosophy is meant to be more of a tone for the branding effort than a tag line. Despite the natural Hoosier tendency toward humility, Indianapolis has a lot to be proud of, Welsh said.

The new refrain reflects the city's ongoing evolution and competitive spirit, said ICVA marketing chief Warren Wilkinson.

"There is a feeling of restless dissatisfaction here, a constant goal of self improvement," he said, citing recent upgrades like the new airport terminal and Lucas Oil Stadium and upcoming projects like an expansion of the Indiana Convention Center and the new JW Marriott hotel complex.

Telling Indianapolis' story "a lot louder and more confidently" is part of Welsh's plan to market the city more aggressively in hopes of attracting conventioneers and leisure travelers alike—something increasingly important as Indianapolis adds convention space and hotel rooms in the coming years.

Although a whopping 90 percent of groups that hold events here become repeat customers, Welsh said the surprise factor is still big for first-time visitors.

"People don't realize how much they can do here," he said. "Indianapolis could have been a little more bold, not as humble, in selling itself."

The Seattle transplant said the city has a lot going for it, including an array of world-class cultural institutions and a compact, walkable downtown.

"We have a confidence we can speak from," he said.

Hospitality hawkers also have momentum, thanks to the progress made last year. Welsh credits a growth in leisure travel - likely the result of a $740,000 regional advertising campaign undertaken in partnership with local cultural destinations.

ICVA estimates total visitor spending in Indianapolis last year reached $620 million, up from $553 million in 2007. Spending tied to conventions and meetings dropped by about $5 million; leisure spending increased more than 60 percent.

"For every dollar we spent in Chicago—where we were a largely unknown, untapped, leisure destination—we saw a $350 return," Welsh said, citing results of a study conducted on ICVA's behalf.

So, it's no wonder Welsh and his team are looking for more marketing money. He said ICVA is in discussions with Marion County's Capital Improvement Board and state lawmakers about the possibility of collecting a greater portion of local hospitality taxes.

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