Convention center tours part of larger tourism strategy

March 1, 2010

Indianapolis tourism officials realize that simply building a bigger convention space doesn't mean people will come. So they're courting both existing convention clients and hot prospects to help seal the deal.

Last week, executives with the annual gaming convention Gen Con scoped out construction of the Indiana Convention Center expansion as part of a broader strategy by tourism officials to market the new space.

The larger convention space, expected to be finished next February, is about 50-percent complete and at a point where clients can begin to visualize meeting there, said Chris Gahl, Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association spokesman.

“Rather than seeing it on renderings,” he said, “they’re going to be able to see it and touch it.”

The hardhat tour conducted Thursday with Gen Con leaders was the first visit by a client, but likely not the last. Any large group that is hosting a convention in Indianapolis—or even is considering the city—will have opportunity to view the new space, Gahl said.

Luring new conventions is key to the ICVA’s strategy to maximize use of the larger convention center. The association last year hosted 37 “citywide” conventions, those in which demand for hotel rooms were greater than the downtown capacity.

The ICVA estimates that it ultimately will need to host 65 to 75 large conventions annually to help the market absorb the additional hotel rooms that will come online as part of the new J.W. Marriott hotel complex.

Three of the smaller hotels in the complex, which contribute 600 rooms, opened last month. The 1,000-room J.W. Marriott should be ready next February. 

Seattle-based Gen Con, one of the city’s largest conventions, agreed last April to remain in Indianapolis through 2015. The convention attracts about 30,000 gamers annually, but executives are intent on growing attendance, now that more space will be available.

“By 2015, we would like to double that number,” CEO Adrian Swartout said. “But the question is, how do we get there?”

Swartout and Owen Seyler, Gen Con convention and business administrator, spent much of Thursday touring the convention center site and meeting with city leaders about expanding Gen Con’s reach.

The convention already is the city’s fourth-largest, creating nearly $27 million in direct visitor spending at local bars, hotels and restaurants. 

Offering more family-friendly activities to attract spouses and children of gamers, as well as tying city events and attractions to the convention, could help build attendance, Swartout said.

The addition of the J.W. Marriott and the convention center expansion should be big contributors.

The convention-center expansion adds 420,000 square feet to the existing mix, for a total of 1.2 million square feet, including Lucas Oil Stadium. That will push the city's rank in U.S. convention space to 16th from 32nd.

And adding 1,600 rooms, including the three smaller hotels in the Marriott Place project, will increase the total amount of downtown rooms almost 30 percent.

ICVA is conducting the site tours along with the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority, which is overseeing construction of the expansion.

Indianapolis has hosted Gen Con since 2003. This year’s festivities will run Aug. 13-16.


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