D.C. key to meeting biz: Indianapolis lands conventions with Washington contingent

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WASHINGTON, D.C.-Kim Allison wants people to think of one thing when they see her: Indianapolis.

So she makes the rounds, on and off the clock, creating that connection. Whether she’s bowling or shopping, eating or reading, Allison has her hometown in mind-even though she’s living and working nearly 600 miles away.

“We go to everything,” said Allison, who leads the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association’s two-person office in suburban Washington, D.C. “It helps keep our name out there.”

Thousands of national associations are clustered around the seat of U.S. government, creating a gravitational force of sorts for cities that want a piece of their meeting and convention business.

Many destinations, including Indianapolis, have satellite operations here in hopes of tapping that lucrative market in between major events like this month’s Destinations Showcase.

“You’ve got to be here, in people’s faces, making your presence known on a daily basis,” said Ed Able, president of the D.C.-based American Association of Museums. “Any city that doesn’t have an office here is nuts. Obviously, they don’t want the business.”

Indianapolis wants it enough to send Allison, a national sales manager, and Business Development Coordinator Lauren Seger out East. ICVA opened the office in late 2000 and booked 11 groups from that market the following year; in 2004, eight Washington-area groups made commitments.

The cost: about $65,000 a year in office rent and incidentals. The benefit: a growing list of potential clients open to hearing what the Circle City has to offer.

“Our business is in large part based on personal relationships,” said ICVA President and CEO Bob Bedell. “Having people [in D.C.] gives us the opportunity to see our customers and get to know them. … We have to get those relationships started.”

The real payoff will come if and when the Indiana Convention Center is expanded, Bedell said. With the facility at capacity, it’s been hard to book big events for 2010 and beyond.

City leaders have proposed a $275 million expansion that would nearly double exhibit space, but until lawmakers approve funding for the project, it’s nothing more than a promise.

“We’re sowing a lot of seeds, planting a lot of fields,” Bedell said. “I expect we’ll be able to turn that business on pretty quickly as soon as we have confirmation.”

Enter Allison, who spends as much time out of ICVA’s Alexandria, Va., office as possible-making sales calls, attending industry functions and doing all she can to be more than a voice on the phone.

“I’ve run into clients at the grocery store,” Allison said, smiling. “They see me, and they think about Indianapolis. That’s not going to happen if I’m not here.”

She communicates regularly with her counterparts back home. Especially Todd Greenwood, who works the D.C. and New York markets from Indianapolis, where he also concentrates on sportsrelated events.

“The advantage of having Kim out there is that I don’t have to be,” said Greenwood, who nevertheless flies out to meet with clients every six weeks or so. “We always have a presence at industry events. We know someone is going to see our name every day. For now, that’s enough.”

The business is worth chasing, by all accounts.

Data from the D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives indicates association-sponsored events generate more than 26 million overnight stays in hotels each year-and represent about twothirds of the $102 billion meetings industry. About 3,500 national associations are headquartered in the Washington area, ASAE estimates.

Bureaus noticed. City reps have been flocking to the nation’s capital for decades. By 1991, enough were in place to spawn an association of their own-WACSBO, dyslexic shorthand for Washington Area Convention Bureau Satellite Offices.

A dozen offices joined that first year; at last count, the group’s membership rolls approached 50, with more on a waiting list.

“Every major convention city is here,” said WACSBO President Kelly Smith, who pitches San Antonio from her home office in Mount Airy, Md. “They’re not all wrong.”

In a highly competitive segment of a highly competitive industry, she and others said, every little bit can make a difference.

“Sometimes, you need to be face to face and elbow to elbow,” concurred Hank Roeder, vice president of domestic and global operations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association. “If bureaus are going to have anybody anywhere, it should be here. This is where their customers are.”

Allison has established a friendly relationship with Roeder, even though Indi- anapolis’ meeting facilities aren’t quite big enough to meet the needs of NBTA’s annual convention and trade show.

But the conversation has begun. Roeder and his wife have been to the city on a familiarization trip. And if the convention center is expanded, he’s prepared to start serious discussions.

All in due time, Allison said. With groups like NBTA, the relationship comes first.

Big deals are seldom-if ever-closed without a firsthand look at the convention center, hotels and other amenities. But meeting planners are more likely to visit if they’re invited by someone they know and trust.

“It’s a lot easier to convince them to come to your city if they like you,” agreed Smith, the San Antonio representative. “They have to be interested before you’re going to get them on a plane.”

That personal contact can originate at a grocery store or an industry bowling tournament, a mealtime speaking engagement or weekend professional confab. Allison also has struck up friendships with some would-be clients, accepting an invitation from one to join a book club, for example.

Then there are the trade shows, the sales extravaganzas, the fish-in-a-barrel opportunities to see and be seen by a veritable wish list of potential customers.

Indeed, Allison and others go to such events equipped with a handful of business cards and a good idea of whom they hope to see. They know who’s looking for a site, who’s about to start looking, and who would be a good fit for Indianapolis.

Take Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ annual “sales jam,” held this month in downtown D.C.: Allison and Greenwood were part of a local contingent that included representatives from Indianapolis’ Westin and Sheraton hotels-and about 70 other Starwood properties-for a lunchtime gripand-grin-and-grub with meeting planners.

ICVA staff scanned the crowd with trained eyes, timing their leisurely walks through the room to intercept someone who just might need to be reminded of Indianapolis.

Allison stopped every now and then for a quick hello-or friendly hug-with a chosen few. One planner whispered the news that a big event was looking for a new home in 2007. Another asked for an appointment to follow up on some possible bookings. Yet another shared a personal development: She’s expecting a baby.

“This is where you further relationships,” Allison explained. “Rarely is someone [here] going to say, ‘OK, let’s seal the deal.'”

The same goes for a massive trade show like Destinations Showcase, held the following day at the Washington Convention Center. There, 220 convention bureaus gathered to present a one-stopshopping option for event planners.

Indianapolis’ booth was at the end of an aisle, next to the Evansville bureau, across from the Louisville bureau and around the corner from the oft-visited dessert station.

Some attendees were drawn by the gold-foil-covered chocolate race cars lined up in 11 rows on Indianapolis’ table there. But most stopped to exchange a few words-very few-about the city.

Allison, Greenwood and Business Development Manager Nathan Smurdon didn’t stray much during the three-hour event. Each had an individual “hit list” of planners they wanted to see, and all were eager to share Indianapolis’ story with anyone who lingered.

They conversed in a sort of shorthand: asking when the event would be held and how much space was needed before checking availability. They took notes on the back of business cards, so they could follow up in more detail.

“The space comes first,” Allison explained. “If a meeting doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter how many flights we have into the city or how good the restaurants are.

“We can sell the sizzle later. First, we have to sell the steak.”

And most competitors also have fired up the coals in D.C. Of the 25 most populous cities in the country, only a handful don’t have convention bureau personnel here.

Ohio’s Experience Columbus shuttered its office following staff turnover in 1999. It now contracts with a firm to represent its interests in Washington.

That arrangement works, but it’s not quite the same as having a representative on the bureau payroll, said Experience Columbus Senior Vice President Joe Marinelli.

“There are many business opportunities that happen every day, every week, every month all year long in a city like Washington,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of being there for that. It’s a tremendous advantage for a city to have someone there pounding the pavement, making phone calls, being visible.”

Third-party planner Scott Lindley agreed.

“It shows a level of commitment by the city to that particular market,” said Lindley, a vice president at Arlington, Va.-based IMN Solutions, an association and meeting management firm.

However cities choose to cast their lines, there’s little doubt that Washington, D.C., will remain a constant target.

“As the old saying goes, you fish where the fish are,” said Experience Columbus’ Marinelli. “In this case, the fish are in Washington.”

So that’s where Allison will keep trolling, spreading the word about Indianapolis as she goes.

“We’ve got to create that passion, get them excited about the city,” she said. “Once they get there, they’re going to love it.”

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