Local convention activity warming up during winter months

February 13, 2010

Once considered a destination only eight months of the year, Indianapolis—with its compact downtown and indoor walkways—is emerging as a convention powerhouse even during cold weather.

Winter conventions don’t rival the travel commerce the city does in the summer. But they are becoming a significant piece of the pie for local hotels, restaurants and other travel-related firms.

Nationally, November through February is the slowest stretch of the convention season, with several studies showing activity in such destinations as Boston and Chicago falling 20 percent to 30 percent. Even warm-weather cities such as Orlando and Las Vegas see declines of 15 percent or more.

In Indianapolis, growth during cold months is up considerably. Hotel room nights purchased through the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association for November 2005 through February 2006 hit 80,248; in the same period ending this month, room nights shot to 118,631.

Cold months accounted for 19.5 percent of all room nights in the period ended in February 2005 and 25.7 percent in the same stretch ended in 2009.

“This city, with its growing network of walkways, is almost weatherproof,” said ICVA CEO Don Welsh. “And it’s starting to pay off in a big way. We’re getting more conventions and we’re getting larger conventions.”

The rising demand also allows hotels to get better prices for their rooms.

“Typically, there’s such an excess of inventory during the winter in a place like Indianapolis, you can get much better deals,” said Jay Gladden, professor of tourism at IUPUI. “Anytime you increase demand, that can affect price.”

Gladden credits the busier winters to improved infrastructure, including the new terminal at Indianapolis International Airport, Lucas Oil Stadium, improved hotel inventory downtown, and a beefed-up sales effort.

It hasn’t always been an easy sell. Indianapolis started forming its convention growth strategy in the 1970s.

“We realized relatively early on that conventions were big business,” said Bill Hudnut, who was mayor from 1976-1991. “We knew that we had to build an infrastructure that made this city unique.

“It was designed with the idea of being versatile, but convincing people it was the place to go during January is another story.”

Rivals Minneapolis, Winnipeg

Welsh, who led a peer organization in Seattle before coming to the Indianapolis group just over a year ago, has spent his professional life traveling the United States, and said the only North American cities with Indianapolis’ level of connectivity are Minneapolis and Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

That local walkway system is still growing.

Guests of the new Marriott Place hotel complex will be able to walk as much as three-fourths of a mile to the Indiana Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium, Circle Centre mall and even the Statehouse without stepping outside.

That’s because the 1,600-room, four-hotel project will add two walkways that connect to an extensive network of skywalks and underground pedestrian paths.

The walkways are the first new spans for the city’s skywalk system in almost a decade, since the 615-room Indianapolis Marriott Downtown opened in 2001 with a convention-center connector.

The system will connect 12 hotels with more than 4,700 rooms—the most of any downtown in the United States, according to Marriott. Unlike Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Winnipeg’s walkways are designed mostly for the convenience of downtown office workers, not as convention amenities.

The first new span will connect the $425 million JW Marriott-anchored hotel complex to a state-owned parking garage over West Street, and the second will connect the garage to the convention center over Maryland Street.

The newest walkways will cost $12,000 to $15,000 per square foot—or $1.5 million to $1.8 million each. They are on schedule to be completed by fall.

Hotel developers benefiting from the new connectors are splitting the cost of the skywalks with the state since the connectors will bring in new customers for the parking garage.

Another critical walkway will be the enclosed corridor connecting Lucas Oil Stadium to the Indiana Convention Center. Construction on that project started late last year and is not expected to be complete for at least another year. The preliminary price tag on that two-block walkway is $10 million.

To address concerns over people’s reluctance to walk two blocks, Welsh wants to eventually install a motorized conveyor, which would substantially increase the cost.

Local tourism officials think the city’s positives far outweigh the negatives, and in the last couple of years, Welsh said, the dial has been turned up on marketing the city’s winter capabilities.

A $5.4 million grant to the ICVA last month from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation will help the city boost marketing heat for three years.

“A big part of our marketing effort is simply getting people here in the winter,” Welsh said. “It sounds like a basic concept, but we’re finding that so many convention planners and business executives either have never been here or haven’t been here in so long, it’s like showing them a new city.”

One example is the Major League Baseball winter meetings held in Indianapolis in December.

Some team executives and MLB brass harbored doubts about bringing the event this far north, said Brian O’Gara, MLB director of special events. But he admitted many in the baseball business were pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the city could be traversed through the many indoor walkways.

“The city really showed what it could do,” O’Gara said.

Word of mouth

Welsh expects word to spread. Business will pick up during winter and hit a record during the winter of the 2012 Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium. During that year, ICVA projects more than 180,000 room nights will be sold during the coldest four months of the year.

“That’s such a critical time for the city, because we will have such large numbers of people here, many of whom have never set foot in this city,” Welsh said. “If we can pull off something of that magnitude in February, I think the future possibilities are almost limitless.”

Debbie Locklear, owner and president of Meeting Services Unlimited Inc., a locally based meeting and convention planner, predicts a big increase in cold weather business after 2012.

“Convention planners are just starting to hear about and understand this city’s capabilities,” Locklear said. “Despite everything this city has done, there are still questions about what can be done here during the winter. We’re opening the door and showing people what this city can do regardless of time of year.”•


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