City convention planners working on transition strategy: Keeping event clients content during expected stadium construction, expansion of center crucial to success Smooth transition critical Contingency plans

  • Comments
  • Print

The city’s hospitality industry might want to adopt the weathered “no pain, no gain” expression as its mantra until the proposed expansion of the Indiana Convention Center is completed, presumably in 2010.

Construction of the 275,000-square-foot addition to the center should begin in 2008, pending legislative approval of a $500 million stadium financing deal for the Colts.

The Convention Center expansion is expected to cost $250 million, and its financing and location hinge on the stadium deal.

Work on the addition wouldn’t begin until a retractable-roof stadium is built on property south of the RCA Dome between Capitol Avenue and Missouri Street. That’s when things could get the most hairy for officials at the Indiana Convention and Visitors Association.

“There is no question it will get messy,” ICVA spokesman Bob Schultz said. “But it’s not an insurmountable challenge for us. It’s a good challenge to have.”

Plans call for razing the RCA Dome to make way for the addition. During construction-and afterward-the new stadium will double as exhibit space when the Colts aren’t playing. The difficulty during construction of the Convention Center addition will be getting exhibitors and conventioneers from the existing center to the new stadium.

Once the expansion is finished, convention visitors will be able to traipse back and forth from the two new venues using a walkway along Capitol Avenue that will go below ground at the railroad viaduct, Schultz said. The underground corridor will feature moving sidewalks to take patrons to field level. Plans call for the field to be below ground level, similar to the basketball court at Conseco Fieldhouse.

The stadium will allow for 100,000 square feet of convention space, bringing total exhibit capacity at the Indiana Convention Center to 675,000 square feet.

“That is what, quite honestly, is getting lost in a lot of the conversation,” Schultz said. “The Colts will be the high-profile tenant of the space, but conventions will be the greater user of the space.”

Amid the construction clutter, ICVA will need to be “especially accommodating” to the groups that already have booked-or are considering-the city for their conventions and events, Schultz said. Among the larger conventions that plan to remain in the city during the makeover are the Powersports Dealer Expo and the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference.

This year’s Dealer Expo, scheduled for Feb. 19-21, will occupy every inch of public space at the convention center and spill into the Westin Hotel across the street. Its 17,000 attendees spend an estimated $11.6 million here each year. The California-based Dealer Expo is one of a handful of major groups clamoring for more space at the convention center.

Dealer Expo, which dubs itself as the most comprehensive trade show of its kind in the world for aftermarket powersports products, could have followed others and taken its show elsewhere for a few years, Instead, it will give the city the benefit of the doubt.

Tracy Harris, vice president of powersports trade for Advanstar Communications, which coordinates the trade show, said the event will remain in the city as long as construction plans don’t change. The expo is holding exhibit space through 2015 but is only committing contractually year by year.

“Currently, our plan is to stay through the expansion,” she said. “But depending on how the expansion plans roll out, that may change our thought process. We’re not in a situation where we have available space that we could afford to lose in the process of an expansion.”

Two organizations that won’t be hosting shows here until the expansion is finished are locally based Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association and California-based Performance Racing Industry.

The CEDIA show is one of the city’s largest annual events, attracting 24,000 attendees who spend $22 million. It was the first major event to announce plans to leave because of the space crunch, and the second to say it will return.

PRI agreed in October to come back for four years beginning in December 2010 as long as the convention center is expanded. Luring PRI back means recapturing the $26 million its 40,000 attendees spend in the city each year.

Those two losses alone are a blow to the city’s hospitality industry, which counts on conventions and trade shows to bolster business.

“We already know the hotel rooms are down in ’05,” said John Livengood, executive director of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana Inc. “We’re trying to figure out, how do we get through the next five years until the convention center expansion is complete?”

To fill the voids, ICVA and the hospitality industry hope to attract smaller business and leisure events that would use hotels for gatherings. Livengood said the hotels will be ramping up their promotional efforts, but could use some help from the state in marketing the city to tourists.

“We are concerned about the next five years and think there needs to be some special effort made to make sure the [hotels and restaurants] are around five years from now,” he said. “If there’s ever a time when the state ought to be stepping in, it’s now.”

The number of room-nights booked this year is expected to drop. Last year, the city’s hotels booked roughly 499,000 room-nights. As of September, the ICVA counted 397,463 room-nights booked, with another 49,935 pending. If all bookings pan out, the 447,398 room-nights still would fall well short of last year’s total.

Indianapolis is hardly alone in its quest for more convention space, leading some to wonder whether the increase in space that is outpacing the growth of the convention industry will fail to generate the economic activity predicted by boosters.

There already are 27 construction projects under way in the United States and Canada that include more than 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space, according to Expo magazine.

Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an expert on publicly built convention centers, is a leading critic of the expansion boon. He said the convention industry is already glutted.

“City after city in this country has expanded [its] convention center and not seen any increase in business,” Sanders said. “There is no direct relationship in exhibit space and increased attendance.”

Cities in which expansions have been completed or are in progress beg to differ. Denver doubled its space to 584,000 square feet, roughly what Indianapolis would have not counting the new stadium, with its expansion that completed in early December.

Rich Grant, director of communications for the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau, said national exhibit space is growing faster than the number of conventions. But, he noted, there’s more to consider than just trade shows.

For instance, Denver would not be hosting the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game Feb. 20 and the accompanying Jam Session, which will use every foot of the new convention space, Grant said.

Denver also will host six shows this year that it otherwise could not have, he said, without the gleaming new expansion.

“You just can’t build it and they will come,” he said. “You have to build it, market it and have what people want.”

Though finished now, Denver’s $125 million expansion experienced a few glitches that pushed the opening back more than a year, disrupting events already on the calendar.

Grant said Indianapolis officials should be mindful that many organizations probably won’t book events for the new expansion the same year it’s set to open. One of the biggest challenges is convincing people the project is going to stay on schedule, which is difficult to do, he said.

For its part, ICVA believes the expansion is necessary. It declined to bid on 68 conventions the past three years because the convention center wasn’t large enough, Schultz said. And, in 2000, when the convention center was expanded 100,000 square feet, that space was absorbed immediately, he added.

Said Schultz: “We feel incredibly confident that Indianapolis not only will have the demand [to justify and expansion], but already has the demand.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.