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White River State Park to choose new marketing firm: Attraction's growing profile lures a slew of bidders

November 26, 2007

Leaders at White River State Park are winnowing down a field of 18 candidates who want to lead the downtown attraction's public relations and marketing efforts the next two to three years.

Park Executive Director Bob Whitt said a winner has not yet been chosen and declined to comment on the selection process, but industry sources identified three finalists: locally based firms Borshoff and Hirons & Co., and Bandy Carroll Hellige of Louisville.

When park officials put out the call for bidders in mid-September, they expected a handful of responses at best. They got 14 pitches from local firms and four from agencies as far away as Utah and Maryland.

All were attracted by the high-profile-but not necessarily big bucks-account.

"[The park] is extremely visible and looks fantastic in a portfolio because of its prominence," said Franklin College Professor Ray Begovich, who teaches journalism and marketing classes.

And many firms want to have a highprofile client to demonstrate their strengths in the growing field of cultural tourism, he said. A 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that more than 216 million tourists visit arts attractions when traveling, up 13 percent from a 1996 study.

"There's a sense around the country that cultural tourism is a growing aspect of what baby boomers want to spend their money on," Begovich said.

White River State Park is home to the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens, the Indiana State Museum and Imax Theater, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, NCAA Hall of Champions, and Victory Field. The 250-acre park also features a canal walk, stretches of green space-including an outdoor amphitheater-and a Medal of Honor memorial.

In 1997, the attractions came together to form a marketing cooperative and locally based Hetrick Communications Inc. landed the job. Hetrick didn't bid this time because it is now concentrating on life sciences.

But other firms did apply, drawn more by the potential for bragging rights than by the total marketing budget of $382,000 a year.

"That type of contract is very appealing ... to establish yourself in an up-and-coming city," said Robert Shula, account executive with the local office of Louisville-based Bandy Carroll Hellige. Most of the marketing money-$312,000 annually-comes from Imax to promote its movie offerings. Other attractions pitch in the remaining $70,000. The park gives $10,000 of that, but may increase its allocation in the park budget, with help from a corporate sponsor.

Whitt said park leaders also want a new firm to rethink the marketing strategy from scratch.

"We're wanting to really step back and look at what is the appropriate amount of money that we need to spend to get the word out better," he said.

For the past two years, the co-op focused all its advertising efforts on local television. In 2006, it ran a 30-second spot that mentioned every attraction. In 2007, it shifted to 15-second spots for each attraction plus the Lawn, the outdoor concert venue. The co-op now is working on a new ad about its Park Pass, which gives purchasers a 25-percent discount on admission to all park venues.

The new marketing firm also will need to help the downtown Imax Theater differentiate itself from two new Imax screens offering Hollywood films. The Kerasotes' ShowPlace 16 in Greenwood debuted its Imax screen in May. Hamilton Town Center, an outdoor mall developed by Simon Property Group Inc. and Gershman Brown & Associates Inc., is slated to open another Imax theater next year.

Add in the expected boost in foot traffic driven by an expansion of the Indiana Convention Center and the 1,000-room J.W. Marriott hotel planned for the edge of the park, and it's no wonder firms are salivating.

"With all the development down there, there's no doubt that it's a great time to make the most of the White River State Park offerings," said Borshoff principal Jennifer Dzwonar.

All three finalists already have cultural tourism accounts-Borshoff represents the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Bandy Carroll Hellige handles the Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau account, and Hirons represents the Eiteljorg, the Indianapolis Zoo and the Indians, as well as the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.

Park leaders met with finalists before Thanksgiving, but were unable to wrap up a contract before the holiday.
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