Smaller meetings key to convention center expansion

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A larger Indiana Convention Center should enable Indianapolis convention bookers to attract and retain the "whopper" events that were showcased to justify the $275 million addition that officially opens Thursday.

One of the most obvious examples is the locally based Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, which will bring its fall trade show back to Indianapolis in September and again in 2012. CEDIA, which attracts 25,000 visitors, left the city in 2005 because it had outgrown the center and is making good on a promise to return after the expansion is finished.

Click here to see a gallery of photos of the recent expansion.

But competition among cities is so stiff for those types of mega-conventions that smaller fish—corporate meetings that might attract 1,000 visitors or less—will be key to keeping the convention center adequately occupied.

“It’s understandable why [big conventions] command such fascination, because they are enormous engines of economic development,” said Steven Hacker,  president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events. “That aside, the backbone of the industry is not those 200 events; it’s the 9,700-odd events that take place every year in the trade-show industry.”

Most convention center additions are constructed to accommodate multiple meetings simultaneously, industry experts said.

Indianapolis is no different. It’s the only way the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association can meet its growth goals to validate the expansion, departing ICVA CEO Don Welsh said during construction. ICVA currently is searching for a replacement for Welsh, who earlier this month accepted a similar position in Chicago.

ICVA typically hosts 20 large conventions annually. The target now is to increase that number by 10, while still putting an emphasis on luring more events of all sizes.

That’s evident in ICVA’s decision to devote more resources to luring smaller conferences, spokesman Chris Gahl said.

“We’ve added two salespeople deliberately focused on smaller-market meetings,” he said. “That’s a deliberate strategy.”

Those smaller conferences or corporate meetings often can be booked and held within the same year, whereas the large conventions are typically scheduled five to seven years in advance, and, in some instances, eight to 10 years, Gahl said.

Examples of smaller organizations booked this year include American Association of Community Colleges, Pediatric Endocrinology Nursing Society, Magnet Schools of America and National Coalition of 100 Black Women, each of which will draw fewer than 1,100 visitors to the city.

ICVA also plans to supplement large bookings by trying to attract corporate business mostly from the pharmaceutical, medical, life sciences and sports-related industries, Gahl said.

ICVA nearly doubled the amount of medical meetings it booked last year compared with 2009. Those meetings accounted for 19 percent of total conventions booked in 2010, up from 10 percent the previous year. That’s important because, although the conferences may only attract 100 visitors, the clientele is more upscale, Gahl said.

“By nature, these are doctors, physicians and researchers that spend more per day on average when they’re at a destination and tend to stay longer,” he said.

So far this year, ICVA has booked 253 meetings in 2011, some of which might attract just 50 people, compared to 401 last year. ICVA expects to exceed last year’s number, Gahl said.

But the real key indicator for growth is the amount of hotel room nights booked in a given year, Gahl said. ICVA last year booked 650,000 hotel room nights for 2010 and beyond. This year, its goal is 725,000—a nearly 12-percent increase.

The addition of the 1,005-room J.W. Marriott hotel, set to open Feb. 4 on the west edge of downtown, gives the city another advantage when courting conventions.

Once the hotel complex is finished, roughly 4,700 hotel rooms will be connected via skywalk to the convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium, which further encourages visitors to walk instead of drive to their destinations.

More hotel rooms not only gives the city leverage to host a large event such as the 2012 Super Bowl, but also more flexibility to accommodate multiple meetings concurrently.

“If you take a look at a typical convention center, good occupancy may be considered to be somewhere in the range of 65 to 70 percent,” Hacker said. “Any increase above that number that you can achieve is money in the bank.”

Nearly 350,000 square feet of exhibit space was added to the convention center, pushing it from 32nd largest in the United States to 16th. The facility, when combined with exhibit space at Lucas Oil Stadium, will have a total of 1.2 million square feet of exhibit and meeting space.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the official opening of the expansion will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday in the three-story glass “cube” entrance on the building’s west side, at Capitol Avenue and Georgia Street.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard are expected to speak at the event.

An open house will follow from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.


  • Realization
    I read this article and realized I suck
  • Thinking the same
    As I read Jeff's comments, I realized I was already thinking that
  • I agree
    I agree with Jeff, as I was already thinking about that.
    • Understand limitations
      Peter has to understand that if you take a look at the convention center location, it is "land-locked" by major streets and as he mentioned, train tracks. There are also a lot of infrastructure items that have to be considered such as a 6-8' diameter sewer pipe that runs through that area, etc, etc. Lucas Oil Stadium is not that far away and is connected via an underground connector along Capitol Ave. so there is no need to go outside. The fact of the matter is that the Convention Center went from 32nd to 16th largest in the United States (taking into account the meeting spaces and field area at LOS.) Yes, Chicago and Orlando are larger, but the fact is being the biggest is not always the best. While the amount of contiguous space available in the Exhibit Halls did not quite double, the amount of meeting room space more than doubled. It's also not just about the overall square footage but how many exhibit halls and meeting rooms are available. Keep in mind that the subject of the article was "Smaller meetings key to convention center expansion"
      • There's a flaw in exhibit space calculation
        Indianapolis could have been a big player if it had not located the football stadium so far away from the Convention Center, realistically limiting exhibit space to 566,000 square feet. It needed to get much closer to 1,000,000 square feet to compete with Chicago and Orlando. The football stadium needs to be adjacent to the Convention Center, but there may not have been any more money in the budget to reconfigure the train tracks. But it sure is a beautiful football stadium.
      • the company you keep....
        Can Gov. Daniels not be there?
      • Don't forget about Gen Con.
        The ICC expansion will also allow the city's number 1# consumer show Gen Con the room it needs to grow and expand. Without the planned additional square footage Gen Con would have moved years ago, but now it has a brand new area to grow into. And if history repeats itself for the 3rd time it should have no troulbe growing into the new ICC.

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