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Local convention leaders wine, dine crucial meeting planners

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Behind Indianapolis’ growth as a convention city is a tedious sales effort that’s as intense and invisible as a riptide.

Before hotel rooms can be booked or Power Points can light a screen, the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association sales staff must land a crucial site visit from the all-important meeting planners—people with power to shower the city with tens of millions of dollars in visitor spending.

Not only does the courtship last a grueling two years or more, but it’s also expensive. About half of the ICVA’s $10.5 million budget is spent on showcasing the city to planners.

“The single most important thing we, as a marketing arm for this city, can do is bring people here for a firsthand look,” said ICVA CEO Don Welsh. “We know if we can just get meeting and convention planners to this city, two out of three times, we’ll close the deal.”

Corporate meetings and conventions accounted for at least two-thirds of the $3.6 billion visitors spend annually in Indianapolis, according to a recent study by Washington, D.C.-based D.K. Shifflet & Associates. Direct visitor spending from a single large convention can range upward of $40 million.

What isn’t widely known is how Indianapolis vies against other Midwestern cities, not to mention such convention giants as Orlando and Las Vegas, for the lucrative business. It may come as a surprise to Indianapolis residents who pride themselves on showing hospitality to outsiders that it’s hard to convince convention planners to even visit the city.

Indianapolis may boast a new airport and stadium, a much-admired fieldhouse, a sparkling lineup of downtown hotels, and a convention center expansion that will push the city’s rank in available space from 32nd to 16th. But that’s not enough.

Welsh admits it’s a tic scary and more than a bit frustrating just how few people in the corporate meetings and conventions business have been to Indianapolis in the past decade—if at all.

“Our studies tell us only 10 [percent] to 20 percent of major association leaders and meeting planners in Washington, D.C., and Chicago have ever been to Indianapolis,” Welsh said. “That simply has to change.”

The first thing Welsh did when he arrived from Seattle last fall to lead the ICVA was to add sales staff and put some of them in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Now, 13 of the 50 employees work almost entirely on trying to lure meeting and convention planners, and wining and dining them once they get here. In recent years, the ICVA has conducted 50 to 55 site visits annually, and Welsh hopes to grow that.

Painstaking process

The dance with planners starts with two to 10 phone calls just to get a phone conversation with a decision-maker, said Ronnie Burt, ICVA’s senior vice president of sales. Then there’s the initial pitch—usually by phone. Then city data is gathered, proposals are written, in-person presentations are made, and the proposals are tweaked, often several times.

“The key is, we have to get the bolt and chain off them, get them away from their desk and get them here,” Burt said.

Sometimes six years pass before a planner sets foot in Indianapolis.

The visits are made as posh as possible while keeping things business-like. Welsh claims he has yet to witness a junket or mini-vacation.

Meeting planners move with the urgency of a firefighter, endurance of a marathon runner, and precision of a brain surgeon.

“The itineraries of these people are mind-boggling,” Welsh said. “We usually have about 24 hours, maybe less, to make our mark. We always wear our track shoes.”

Debbie Locklear, founder and president of Meeting Services Unlimited Inc., an Indianapolis-based firm that represents some of the nation’s largest trade shows, including the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association’s annual show in Atlanta, said a “fire drill” swing through five cities in five days isn’t uncommon.

If ICVA officials are fortunate, they’ll get meeting planners’ attention for two days.

A typical one-day schedule starts with an early morning airport pickup. If it’s a big, city-wide convention, Welsh and/or his top sales lieutenant, Burt, are likely to be involved.

Convention and visitor associations often work with airlines operating in their cities to obtain complimentary airfares for the group, which is usually two to five people. But some associations decline freebies to maintain objectivity.

In Indianapolis, a typical delegation might be taken directly to a potential host hotel, where the manager would be waiting to lead a personal tour and serve a complimentary breakfast.

The planners would move on to two more hotels and an inspection of the Indiana Convention Center, then to a fourth hotel. Lunch would be served at the fourth hotel, or the contingent would duck into a local eatery. Regardless, the manager and/or chef would pay a visit.

Three more hotel visits would be followed by a side trip to the NCAA Hall of Champions, Indianapolis Zoo or other landmark where off-site or after-hours parties and activities can be held. It’s important for visiting spouses to have something to do during conventions, Welsh noted.

The tour would hit Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, an itinerary staple that often serves as an adjunct to the convention center.

Dinner at St. Elmo’s Steak House, RBistro or another of the city’s finest restaurants would wrap up the day. All the meals would be complimentary, and meeting planners could expect to get a swag-bag at each stop—especially from the hotels.

If a sporting event’s on tap or the symphony is playing, complimentary tickets would be available.

For organizers of one of the larger conventions, ICVA officials would try to work in a visit from the mayor.

Lengthy checklists

Meeting planners are tough critics, said Jonathan Day, a professor in Purdue University’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management.

“The first thing they will want to inspect is the physical layout, not only of the city, but of the convention and meeting space, hotels, ballrooms and every inch of other space they may need,” Day said.

Among the hundreds of details are proximity and traffic routes from the airport to the hotels and convention center—right down to loading docks.

There’s another thing, said Locklear of Meeting Services Unlimited.

“Meeting and convention planners want to know that this is something special for the city,” she said. “It’s really important that convention-goers feel welcome and important.”

But the ICVA can’t control everything. Some planners break out on their own to broaden their evaluations.

Dirk Ebener, CEO of Atlanta-based NuernbergMesse North America, which represents more than 100 trade shows globally, admits it’s nice to get a one-on-one visit with the mayor and have every hotel and restaurant manager on the tour know his name.

But he also wants to get a feel for what average convention-goers will experience. So he often arrives unannounced a day before his official site inspection.

One of Ebener’s clients, The American Coatings Show, a trade show for the painting and coatings industry, had a short list of 11 cities when Ebener made his first visit to Indianapolis in September 2008.

The list is down to two, Indianapolis and Minneapolis, and Ebener is coming back this month for a second look. No one but Ebener knows when he’ll arrive.

Ebener, who has been in the business 30 years, has a six-page checklist. He walks the city streets inconspicuously meeting and greeting people, popping into coffee shops, and grabbing lunch here and dinner there. He’ll also take a couple of taxicab rides and ask strangers for directions.

“Having done this so long, I pretty much know what a convention hotel looks like and has to offer,” Ebener said. “I want to see on a very personal level what attendees at my convention will experience. I want to know, are people in the host city going to be honest, friendly and focused on being helpful?”

While Ebener said he was “wowed” by Indianapolis’ new airport and liked connections around the city, he was equally impressed by a stranger on the street who wanted so badly to find him a special place to eat that he called several friends on his cell phone seeking suggestions. Ebener also fondly remembers a downtown Mexican restaurant that served him Mexican sushi.

Ebener’s checklist also includes rest rooms: “Public bathrooms tell great stories. They can tell you a lot about a city.”

He gives high marks to the part of his tour led by the ICVA. Despite the high-pressure world of convention site sales, the ICVA people never criticized another city or even compared Indianapolis to another potential host, he said.

“The people in Indianapolis have a way of doing business, a charm and a certain presence that is unmistakable,” Ebener said. “The ICVA always gave me honest answers to critical questions. But they gave me more than facts and figures. They were intent on building relationships.”

‘Orchestrating an experience’

Locklear said the on-site visit is 50 percent to 75 percent of what determines where a convention or corporate meeting will land. That’s not lost on those involved.

And it’s about more than bearing gifts.

One of her most memorable visits, in Denver, was created when the entire staff of a potential host hotel turned out for the inspection and in special, individual ways introduced themselves and their roles.

“It was very impressive,” she said. “Gestures like that make a big difference.”

Site visits are not merely about conducting a tour, said Burt, the ICVA official. “It’s about orchestrating an experience.”

Creating the experience is where the perks come in.

ICVA officials use their suites in Lucas Oil Stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse to create that experience for some lucky prospects. Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers games, as well as concerts and special events such as the NCAA Final Four, are often used as special events to lure the most potentially lucrative prospects.

The ICVA also uses the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

ICVA officials make no apologies for the attention they lavish on prospects.

“We totally take care of the clients from the moment they land here,” Burt said. “After all, we’re in the service business.”•

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