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Convention faithful are sticking it out: Trade groups say perks outweigh construction hassle

October 1, 2007

The Indiana Convention Center isn't big enough for some large trade shows, but Indianapolis' location and hospitality are enough to keep certain customers coming back.

Despite losing locally based Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association's CEDIA Expo and California-based Performance Racing Industry's annual show-and the estimated $45 million attendees spent each year-Indianapolis has managed to keep three other biggies.

Do it Best Corp.'s twice-yearly trade show, Advanstar Communications' Dealer Expo and the Fire Department Instructors Conference are sticking around because the city is willing to bend over backward to accommodate them as the convention center is expanded. It's no wonder, given the more than $68 million in visitor spending associated with those events.

"[These shows] are truly the holy grail in the convention business," said Bob Schultz, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.

Fort Wayne-based Do it Best has held its expo here for 30 years, despite outgrowing it. When the national hardware co-op's buying fair is in town this month, its 1,600 booths will be set up in halls and even hotels.

"We were bursting at the seams already back when they remodeled in 2000," said Bill Zielke, Do it Best's vice president of marketing and international development. But the city's central location, proximity to the company's home base and local tradition have kept it here.

Indianapolis is attractive to trade show operators because of its inventory of downtown hotel rooms, nearby restaurants and other amenities, Schultz said. The city doesn't give away its convention space to attract business, as some other cities do, he said. And each hotel decides how to negotiate on room rates.

So the deciding factor often boils down to location and amenities.

The remaining trade shows are among about 38 large citywide events booked at the convention center each year. Keeping them in place when space is tight was one thing-navigating the construction mess is quite another.

Schultz said ICVA has tried to make sure show organizers are in the loop on expansion plans. The regulars were solicited for advice on the layout and are updated about what areas will be closed during construction, expected to last until 2010. The expanded convention center will have 747,370 square feet of trade-show space, about 253,000 more than it has now.

"We want to limit the surprise factor and anticipate their needs," he said. And while CEDIA and PRI moved on-at least for the time being-the others have signed contracts that keep them in Indianapolis through the expansion.

California-based Advanstar Communications Inc. keeps its motorsports Dealer Expo in Indianapolis because of the central location and the feeling that the crowd of 22,000 takes over downtown-allowing deals to be made over dinner or when people bump into one another in the hotel lobby.

"It is important that our event be the sole event in the city and anywhere [attendees] went, they would be running into their own community of people," said Advanstar Vice President Tracy Harris.

The head of the Fire Department Instructors Conference tells a similar tale. Having the show in Indianapolis puts it within 500 miles of roughly 65 percent of firefighters in the nation, said Eric Schlett, vice president of show organizer PennWell Fire.

Do it Best Vice President Bill Zielke said ICVA has worked with the company to plan the transition. Organizers want to make sure booths or products that are moved to accommodate construction stay put so store owners and vendors can walk the show floor without a map.

"If we felt like we couldn't run an effective market [here], we would have looked elsewhere," Zielke said. "But our members think it's a great destination .... They park their cars, stay in a nice hotel, have easy access to the convention center and great restaurants and entertainment."

While these vendors speak highly of the city, Indianapolis has been forced to play defense by making sure its customer service is up to snuff. Show organizers said they hear from other cities throughout the year, looking to woo them away.

"When you hear a city is about to expand [a convention center], its business is considered low-hanging fruit," Schultz said. "It becomes a target for some cities."
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