Local convention officials look homeward to fill void: Indiana companies targeted during expansion project

The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association hopes to soften the blow from the loss of two national trade shows with a campaign persuading Hoosier companies to choose the city for events and meetings.

ICVA officials plan to launch the loosely dubbed “Bring it Home” effort Sept. 1 with a letter to corporate executives that expounds the virtues of Indianapolis. The aim is to bring business to the hospitality community during what is expected to be a slow time the next couple of years.

The Indiana Convention Center will begin undergoing an expansion in fall of 2008 that won’t be complete until 2010.

The lack of adequate meeting space drove two of the city’s largest annual trade shows to seek other venues with an agreement to return after the expansion is finished.

The annual $55-million economic impact that locally based Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association and California-based Performance Racing Industry would have brought to the city will be impossible to completely replace.

To make matters worse, CEDIA might not return to Indianapolis until 2012, thanks to a growing expo that even the larger convention center won’t be able to accommodate. Due to its growth, CEDIA is planning to add another expo in the spring. Indianapolis could host that show.

Still, Doug Bennett, ICVA’s vice president of sales, thinks the campaign can at least make a dent in the lost dollar amount.

“We’re not in desperate straits, but we also like to see results,” he said. “We’re not going to be in a position to say, ‘No, that group is too small.’ We have plenty of inventory in the city to find a home for all sized groups.”

That means the ICVA will accept bookings of 15 rooms or 150, Bennett added.

That’s because it’s impossible to attract any new substantial conventions while the center is under renovation. Rather, the aim is to draw smaller business and leisure events that would use hotels for gatherings. There are 22 hotels in Indianapolis that boast at least 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

The new focus on Indiana businesses shouldn’t be viewed as a past slight of the sector, Bennett insisted, but merely an indication that the demand from out-ofstate groups to host large trade shows here has been strong for years.

Cities typically prefer booking conventions from out of state because guests must use local hotel rooms. But just because an Indianapolis company chooses to hold a meeting in its hometown doesn’t mean hotel rooms won’t be reserved, Bennett said.

For instance, Dow AgroSciences, as well as several other Indiana companies, have national operations and would attract employees from across the country.

“Our Midwest geography is an advantage for companies that have a presence on the east and west coasts,” Bennett said. “We’re a natural opportunity for them.”

Much of the ICVA’s message to corporate CEOs and association directors will emphasize the cost savings companies can realize by remaining close to home instead of traveling to another Midwest destination to conduct a regional sales meeting.

Initial correspondence made in early September likely will be followed by a few more messages, Bennett said, to establish as many relationships as possible.

The ICVA has seven sales managers whose jobs are to attract smaller organizations that need just one meeting room in a hotel. Those folks will work exclusively on the campaign.

John Livengood, president of the Indiana Hotel & Lodging Association, lauded the ICVA for the approach.

“I wouldn’t call it a silver bullet, but it certainly will make a difference,” he said. “It’s not all gloom and doom, but there certainly are concerns about the next couple of years.”

While years away, one bright spot is American Legion’s 2012 national convention. The locally based group announced in May that it will host the convention here. It was last held in Indianapolis in 1995, and is expected next time to draw 13,000 people and create an economic impact of $13.7 million in direct spending, according to the ICVA.

After the expansion, the convention center will have 747,000 square feet of exhibit space, plus another 188,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space and 267,800 square feet of so-called “pre-function” space.

Indianapolis ranks 32nd in the nation in square footage available at its convention center, according to Los Angeles-based trade publication Tradeshow Week. With the extra space, it will jump to 10th if no other expansions come online in the interim.

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