Smoking ban opens new doors to Visit Indy

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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.”

Broader impact

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.”

Global impact

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.

Hot prospects

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.”•


  • Smoking ban
    Honestly, we shouldn't care if some bars close because of the smoking ban. If you can't run your business without having to harm others, maybe you should rethink your business model. I'm sure a lot of plantations had to go out of business when slavery was banned...
  • Smoking Ban Hurts Business
    Claude and Annie's at Pike Plaza closed. There have been several others. I have seen the financial records of these neighborhood bars as part of the lawsuit I'm involved in. Anyone who thinks they haven't lost a ton of business needs to have their head examined. Even smoking ban advocates now concede that the ban does hurt many bars. That smoking bans hurt business is exactly why gambling facilities insist on being exempted. It most likely will be a moot point though as it appears the Indiana Supreme Court is going to strike down Evansville's smoking ban ordinance as violating Indiana's Constitution (the privileges and immunities clause) for having an exception for gambling facilities. Indianapolis ban, which also contains exceptions, will almost certainly follow that precedent and be stricken down as well.
  • out of business
    Those establishments that you site are going out of business because their chain-smoking clientele is quite literally dying out.
  • Still Waiting on Super Bowl Bump Too
    Still waiting to hear of just one convention that chose Infoanspolis for a convention after taxpayers spent tens of millions on hosting it.
  • Many?
    "Many have gone out of business" -- Prove it! While I am sure there have been a few here and there, prove to me that they didn't have other issues in their business plans, too.
  • In the Meantime
    So while we wait years to see if this works (though not all conventions plan out years in advance, we're supposed to ignore the fact that business owners can't allow a legal activity in their bars? What is missing is that almost all the downtown bars had already gone non-smoking. The market was working. What this ban did was hit extremely hard small blue collar, neighborhood bars several of which had a clientele 90% of which were smokers. Many of those bars have gone out of business and many more will in the coming year.
  • Paul lets give it more time
    Paul before you jump on that bandwagon why don't we wait another 3 years? As mentioned above conventions are booked years in advance. Lets come back here around 2018 and see if it was worth it.
  • Convention Cities are Picked Years in Advance
    Your point is meaningless: First of all, convention cities are chosen years in advance. Second of all, just because no convention has yet said it was the "sole reason" doesn't mean "the law isn't working." Convention cities are chosen for dozens of reasons, a no-smoking ordinance being just one for some organizations. Cost and availability on the dates they want to have the event are others. Regardless, we can say for certain that if any of the 60 or so high-profile organizations that live by this rule come to Indianapolis then we know, without a doubt, that they wouldn't be here without the law.
  • Smoke is clearing
    While it may be true that the stronger smoke-free air laws haven't (yet) been cited as THE difference in landing a convention or trade show...it does appears that those who ARE doing business here are satisfied with the progress that has been made.
  • Title of the Article
    "The city has yet to sign a convention deal due primarily to its stricter law..." That's what the story should have been about. The ban has been in place for 1 1/2 years and they can't cite to a single convention deciding to come here now that we have a smoking ban. Not that more business justifies infringing on the right of business owners to run their businesses as they see fit.

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