ICVA calls in headhunter to help fill top post: Experts say job should draw wide interest

A nationally renowned headhunter is tracking down candidates to fill the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association’s top job in hopes of having a new president in place by June 1.

Industry observers expect plenty of applicants given an upcoming hospitality building spree.

“This is potentially the chance of a lifetime for someone to come in and make a huge difference,” said Amanda Cecil, an assistant professor in IUPUI’s Convention and Event Management Department. She called the Indianapolis market a “gold mine.”

Once the $625 million Lucas Oil Stadium opens later this year, construction will begin on a $275 million expansion of the Indiana Convention Center, set to open in 2010.

Project proponents made the case for the expansion because many large conventions were running out of space in the existing center, and there weren’t many openings for new business. With the additional space, ICVA has more than 1.2 million square feet to work with, more than 65 percent more than it has now in the convention center and RCA Dome.

Add on a $425 million convention hotel campus, including a 1,000-room JW Marriott, set to open in phases in 2010 and 2011, and all the building blocks are in place for the leader who replaces ICVA President Bob Bedell. Bedell said in December that he would retire at the end of June.

ICVA board member Jim Morris-the former head of the United Nations World Food Programme who is now a special adviser to Pacers Sports & Entertainment CEO Donnie Walsh-is leading an eightperson search committee charged with finding the next president. Morris also led two previous searches, hiring Bedell and his predecessor, Bill McGowan.

It’s a personnel pick the search committee must get right, Morris said.

“Indianapolis has become one of the 10 or 12 most important convention destinations in the country,” he said.

Indeed, the industry has thrived under the recent leadership, reaching a record high of 21.9 million visitors who spent $3.6 billion in 2006, according to the ICVA.

“We need someone very creative who can continue to keep Indianapolis very competitive,” Morris said.

Indianapolis hosts about 40 large, citywide events a year. The additional space will allow the ICVA to book larger events and more that overlap.

The promised expansion already has drawn back nine groups that departed because of the space crunch and lured one newcomer-Drums Corps International.

To be successful, the new ICVA leader will have to maintain that momentum.

Given the high stakes, the search committee hired a headhunter who specializes in the hospitality industry: Mike Gamble, president of M i n n e s o t a – b a s e d SearchWide. Morris said the financial details of the contract are being finalized.

According to SearchWide’s Web site, it has worked with more than 100 convention and visitors’ bureaus and helped fill the top posts in Detroit, New Orleans, Orlando and Vancouver. Through an assistant, Gamble declined an interview with IBJ, citing a policy not to talk about ongoing searches.

But observers expect a long list of applicants given the city’s size and recent hospitality investments.

“There is a lot of growth and energy coming out of Indianapolis,” said Kristen Clemens, spokeswoman for Destination Marketing Association International, a trade group for convention bureaus. “[It] could definitely incite executive relocation from another destination.”

Cecil said likely applicants include leaders at similarly sized cities or those holding a lesser position in larger cities.

“It will be someone who’s really looking for a challenge,” she said.

Bedell spent seven years at the ICVA before leaving in 1993 to lead the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission; he returned in 2002 to take the top job in Indianapolis. McGowan, Bedell’s predecessor, is a well-known local civic leader who came from the banking industry.

Although Bedell made a comfortable $353,087, Morris said IVCA is prepared to pay more if necessary.

“We need to be very competitive [on salary] and we will be,” he said.

The majority of the ICVA’s $10.5 million annual budget comes from government contracts, with the rest coming from dues paid by member organizations such as hotels, restaurants and destinations.

The search committee plans to start interviews in May. Morris said he hopes to have someone selected and ready to step in by the first of June, allowing some potential overlap and training with Bedell.

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