Master planner: Veteran event organizer Smith helps city land major events

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Maribeth Smith never talks about herself. Despite engineering some of the biggest events in the city’s history-everything from Final Fours to the Jazz Fest to last year’s meeting of the American Association of Museums-she’s loathe to use the word “I.”

She prefers “we.” As in “we” the city. Or “we” Maribeth Smith & Associates, her 14-year-old event planning firm.

But as reticent as the 62-yearold Smith might be to take credit for her accomplishments, convention organizers and city officials say her talents are

a huge reason major events like the Final Four keep coming to Indianapolis.

“There’s no question that when we bid for events and they see the level of events we’re successful in pulling off, that when they ask the question, ‘How are you able to do that?’ we’re able to answer with Maribeth Smith,” said Bob Schultz, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “She becomes a tool

in our work belt that contributes to successfully landing more and more of these high-profile events.”

Schultz isn’t the only person enamored with Smith’s ability to make big events look easier than a wide-open George McGinnis jump shot.

“We have a reputation for being the best at hosting the NCAA Final Four, for being the best at hosting international sporting events, cultural events, and big gatherings like the National League of Cities,” Mayor Bart Peterson said. “A big part of that reputation is because of Maribeth Smith.”

Peterson has a unique vantage point to judge Smith’s work. In 2004, Smith organized the annual conference of the National League of Cities when it came to Indianapolis. Peterson is the organization’s first vice president.

How’d it go? Earlier this year, he was in Washington, D.C., for the NLC’s spring conference.

“This was a year and a half after the [event in Indianapolis],” Peterson said, “and I must have had 100 different people come up to me and tell me how great our event was.”

And as hard as it is to get Smith to talk about herself, it’s even more difficult to find somebody to say anything negative about her or her firm. The dozen or so people contacted for this story laughed when asked if one of her events had ever come off the rails.

Smith didn’t even have to bid on organizing this year’s Final Four. It was automatic after she pulled it off to stellar reviews in 1991, 1997 and 2000. The official tournament hosts-in this case the Horizon League and Butler University-are responsible for selecting people to run the event.

“Even if they sent it out for bid, most people would understand it would go to [Maribeth Smith & Associates],” said Kari Strolberg, who used to work for Smith and now works at the Indianapolis event planning firm Detail + Design.

While Smith wouldn’t part with how much her firm will pocket from the event, her cut will come from the event’s $1.3 million local budget. Major corporate sponsorships make up the majority of the budget. The NCAA also contributes to the pot.

From Brownies to big leagues

Planning a Final Four might seem like a pretty big jump for somebody who got her start organizing Brownie troop meetings and birthday parties as a stay-athome mom. (She’s married to longtime executive Al Smith, president of Chase Bank of Central Indiana and managing director of JPMorgan Private Bank.)

Smith doesn’t see it that way.

At the same time she was dishing out cake and ice cream, she was also president of the Junior League of Indianapolis, where she took a management seminar on event planning.

She took what she heard to heart. Start meetings on time. Have an agenda. Get everybody involved. Delegate.

So when Deputy Mayor Dave Frick asked her to plan a National League of Cities Conference in 1984, two years after she’d stepped down from the Junior League, she didn’t flinch.

It went so well Frick called again two years later. This time, he wanted her to plan a meeting of all the county officials in the country. She agreed. But she also asked him to throw in a paycheck this time. No problem, he said. “Then we were on a roll,” Smith said. She served as events coordinator for the city until 1989, putting together meetings and conferences with audiences in the thousands. She formed Maribeth Smith & Associates shortly thereafter, in 1992. Since then, the firm has had its hands on seemingly every major event to come through town. Indiana Association of Cities and Towns. H a r l ey – D av i d s o n ‘s 100th Anniversary Rendezvous. International Lions Clubs.

The firm is at the controls for the two biggest events in Indianapolis this year-the Final Four and the National FFA Convention. Combined, the two events will pump more than $60 million into the local economy and accommodate more than 125,000 visitors, convention officials say.

This is also the first time the FFA has asked someone outside its organization to run the annual convention, which has been a fixture of high school agricultural education since 1928.

“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years,” said Doug Loudenslager, the FFA’s chief operating officer. “We think we know how to do it. But it certainly has been a good investment to have Maribeth Smith & Associates working with us.”

Details, details

How does someone plan an event that’ll bring 80,000 rabid college basketball fans to the city in one blur of a weekend?

It’s no different than planning a birthday party, Smith said. The scale is just a little bigger.

It starts with visiting Final Fours in other cities to get a flavor for the event-what it’s like, who attends, what makes it unique.

“You get a feel when you spend four days at the event,” Smith said. “You get a feel for the nature of it and the kind of people that attend.”

Then it’s time for a wall-size organizational chart. The Final Four has 17 subcommittees and 1,500 volunteers. Each subcommittee has been meeting roughly an hour each month for two years.

The subcommittees have taken care of every detail from the design of the tickets to the parting gifts that’ll end up in the suitcases of outgoing VIPs.

The attention to detail is one of the firm’s calling cards. At this year’s Hoosier Oncology Group Golf Tournament, another of Smith’s events, uniformed volunteers will greet cars when they arrive and make sure valets are waiting to pull clubs out of trunks.

“Our core business is clinical cancer research,” said Jake Vinson, executive director of the Hoosier Oncology Group. “We’re not very good at playing golf, much less planning events.”

More important than the crisp uniforms, Vinson said, is the help Smith and her colleagues provide with strategy.

The tournament has raised more than $1 million for cancer research since 1993, but as more organizations have started running similar events, it’s been harder to stay ahead of the pack. Smith’s colleagues have helped the group carve out a new direction.

This year, for instance, they’re bringing in more cancer survivors to play in the outing in hopes of raising more awareness about the group’s research.

The time for plotting strategy for the Final Four will be long gone when the first basketball fans roll into town. Smith will spend part of the week in a war room set up to monitor everything from traffic patterns to litter in the streets.

Her plans won’t end when the final second ticks off the clock in the big game. She’ll hop a plane April 4 for a welldeserved vacation.

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