Tourism chief excited to sell world on Indianapolis: Former Seattle exec will have work cut out for him

Few in Indianapolis’ hospitality community knew what to think when Donald Welsh announced he was leaving Seattle to lead convention and tourism efforts here. But Seattle insiders say their loss is Indianapolis’ gain.

“He’s behind a lot of the energy in the [Seattle] organization and getting people engaged,” said Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association.

That energy will be needed at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, which is working to fill an expanded Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium even as it grapples with losing two major events.

But Welsh said his first job is to get to know his staff. He wants to make certain “everybody has the tools and resources to do their job and have fun along the way. We’re selling hospitality and tourism and we have to embody that enthusiasm.”

When the $275 million convention center expansion opens in late 2010, ICVA will have a total of 1.2 million square feet of space to fill at the two venues-475,600 square feet more than it has to work with now.

“The size of the convention center is going to be so dramatically increased, Indianapolis is going to be open to some groups that have never been” to the city, Welsh said. “That’s a sales process that’s going to take time.”

ICVA Board Chairman Jerry Semler agreed.

“We have to increase our [convention] bookings about 50 percent to fill the space,” he said, adding that staffing decisions will be dependent on Welsh’s analysis when he takes over Aug. 1.

Welsh will have his work cut out for him, given the loss of two big events planners had used to make a case for expanding the convention center.

The Performance Racing Industry trade show, which drew 39,000 visitors here each December before relocating in 2005, said in May it won’t return as planned.

And last year, the locally based Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association said it wouldn’t bring its fall show-which drew 26,000 attendees-back to the city after all.

Indianapolis’ success at attracting such large events has kept convention center business booming, with 40 citywide events booked each year. Seattle, on the other hand, has more of an emphasis on leisure tourism. Still, its small convention center- 200,000 square feet of exhibit space and 100,000 square feet of meeting space-books about 43 events a year.

The two tourism organizations are about the same size: Seattle’s has a staff of 50 and nearly $12 million to work with each year. Indianapolis has an $11.2 million budget and 50 employees.

Indianapolis tourism watchers said they’re excited to see a leader with experience in leisure tourism despite the city’s past emphasis on conventions. Filling in gaps with leisure tourists is important, said John Livengood, president of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana.

Indianapolis didn’t pay much attention to leisure tourism until Bob Bedell took over as CEO in 2002, he said, and it’s an area where the city can still grow.

“We really need to see that bolstered,” Livengood said.

In 2002, the ICVA spent $75,000 to place leisure-tourism advertising nationwide; now, the agency and a handful of partners spend nearly $1 million on leisure ads.

Bedell, 60, said in December that he would retire July 31. He plans to remain in Indianapolis and do some volunteer work.

Welsh took over the Seattle CVB in 2005. Under his watch, the city had success luring international tourists after hosting meetings in the city that’s about equidistant to Europe and Asia.

The ICVA’s search committee selected Welsh from more than 100 applicants. He’ll be paid a base salary of $280,000, the same as his predecessor, and will be subject to a similar bonus structure. Bedell earned $353,087 in his most recent year at the ICVA.

Welsh also was known as a forceful advocate for tourism in Seattle.

“He’s been a driving force in getting the state to talk about tourism and engaging the governor and mayor,” Anton said.

When the Washington Legislature cut tourism funding to balance its budget, Welsh and other leaders were out in front trying to tone down the cuts. After that effort failed, the bureau launched www.whytourismmatters.comto educate officials about the importance of the industry.

“A lot of people are dependent on [convention and visitor bureaus] for their jobs,” Welsh said. If the ICVA doesn’t book events, “bellmen, waiters, taxis drivers don’t work. That’s what is of paramount importance.”

Welsh and wife, Jean, will be moving here with the youngest two of their four daughters.

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