City out to wow travel writers: Officials think large effort for small group will pay off by boosting coverage

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When The New York Times ran an article about Indianapolis’ Stone Soup Inn several years ago, owner Jeneane Life got calls from people on airplanes looking to book a room.

And the phone’s still ringing in the aftermath of a fall Chicago Tribune review of the new wellness program at Life’s Villa Inn.

“People will say, ‘I kept that article because I’ve been meaning to come and stay with you,'” said Life, who also owns the Looking Glass Inn in Indianapolis.

Given her experience, it’s no surprise Life has joined other local hospitality professionals pitching in to welcome a group of travel writers heading to Indianapolis this month.

Local tourism leaders are doing more than hosting a semi-annual travel writers conference that starts April 11-they’re putting years of planning to work as they aim to impress the 68 reporters, publicists and spouses coming to town.

Officials hope the junket will pay off with glowing travel stories that draw tourists and their checkbooks.

The Midwest Travel Writers Association picked Indianapolis to host the meeting in 2005, and it’s been an all-out push to show them a good time ever since.

To get writers to sign up for the optional conference, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association teamed up with a number of area venues to show off the obvious and not-so-obvious attractions.

“I truly believe our meeting will blow them out of the water,” said Jen Schmits Thomas, owner of locally based Jen Thomas PR Inc. Thomas is a member of the writers group and is helping plan the Indianapolis event.

To build anticipation, planners sent the writers a bottle of locally produced wine to celebrate the new year and shipped sweets from a local chocolatier for Valentine’s Day.

They’ve set up breakout tours that could send writers on a 180-mph lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, duckpin bowling in Fountain Square or a bike tour of the planned cultural trail.

When the writers check in for their free four-night stay at the Conrad, they’ll get a gift basket tied to local themes and a personalized letter from the mayor welcoming them. They’ll be chauffeured around the city and eat meals at area attractions, including a barn dance at Conner Prairie and a gala dinner at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“It’s the same organized effort that we would give to a Final Four or hosting the FFA in terms of committee structure,” said ICVA spokesman Bob Schultz.

Most of the expenses are covered through donations from area hotels and attractions, he said, but ICVA and the Indiana Office of Tourism Development have spent $40,000 directly-mostly to market the event. Attractions have kicked in an estimated $75,000 in freebies, not counting the rooms the Conrad set aside.

Each writer also has been assigned a volunteer who will call and introduce himor herself before the reporter’s arrival. The volunteers are combing through each writer’s itinerary so they can include a weather update and remind those taking part in a dolphin swim at the Indianapolis Zoo, for example, to pack a swimsuit. The same volunteer will then meet the writer in person at the airport.

All this effort comes with the hopes that once the scribes leave, they’ll take with them a plethora of story ideas about the city that could show up in regional or national travel publications, leading to a flock of tourists descending on the city.

“A travel article has the credibility factor at three times [higher] than an ad,” Schultz said.

And most local groups wouldn’t be able to swing the cost of an ad anyway. For example, an ad the same size as Life’s review in the Chicago Tribune would have cost more than $50,000.

“We do a very good job of repaying the city, if you will, through the stories and photographs that are published,” said association President Dan Donarski, a Wisconsin-based free-lancer.

Donarski said he already has one story sold based on the Indianapolis trip and several other pitches out to editors.

The association’s last meeting was in Perry, Iowa, a small town about 25 minutes northwest of Des Moines. Donarski said he wrote three feature-length articles for Midwest Gaming & Travel and two short articles for other publications following that trip, and he expects to update story ideas for at least two years.

Cincinnati, which hosted the spring 2005 meeting, is still feeling the impact.

“It was an outstanding experience,” said Jessie Erickson Folmar, spokeswoman for the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Indianapolis officials compare the targeted effort to the red carpet they rolled out for the Professional Convention Management Association in January 2004. After wining and dining the 2,800 attendees, ICVA said the city booked 25 events that generated 40,000 room nights at local hotels. And there are another 36 events in the works, which could mean another 200,000 room nights.

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