As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Local tourism supporters are taking the adage to heart, prominently featuring the Indianapolis International Airport’s makeover in a branding campaign rolled out earlier this month.
The new terminal will play a vital role in introducing newcomers to the region, said Don Welsh, CEO of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, who arrived here in August.
"Not to be critical of the old airport, but when you compare the new with the old, there’s really no comparison," the Seattle native said. "It really does say, ‘Wow! I’ve arrived at someplace special.’"
The $1.1 billion passenger terminal and parking garage opened in November and continues a trend among airports to incorporate public art into expansion projects.
The airport authority committed nearly $3.9 million to art that includes enormous, hand-blown glass murals and painted bronze pieces for the whimsical "Baggage Claim" piece. Supporters hope more commissions for permanent works and temporary exhibits will follow.
Project directors say the pieces are meant to communicate the importance of arts and culture to the region. Whether the terminal and its splendor will endear convention and meeting planners enough to lure them from another destination is yet to be determined.
Still, John Livengood, director of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana, is certain the airport can benefit the city’s convention business.
"It is one of the things that makes the Indianapolis package more attractive," he said. "It certainly is a beautiful facility. I don’t see how it can’t help our image."
The airport is part of an approach by city tourism leaders to more aggressively market the city to conventioneers and leisure travelers alike–something increasingly important as Indianapolis adds convention space and hotel rooms in the coming years.
ICVA featured the terminal on the cover of its annual report, and it will be displayed in its Convention Planners Guide and all sales pieces. The association plans to spend at least $300,000 this year to market the city.
Although a whopping 90 percent of groups that hold events here become repeat customers, Welsh said the surprise factor is still big for first-time visitors. An array of world-class cultural institutions and a compact, walkable downtown are part of the package, he said.
Yet, not everyone is convinced an airport can play even a minor part in courting more conventions. Count Joe Brancatelli, publisher of business traveler Web site JoeSentMe.com, as a skeptic.
Airports register on visitors’ radars only when service is lousy, he maintained.
"But nobody says, ‘Oh, they’ve got a great airport; let’s go there," Brancatelli said.
He said the decrease in nonstop flights to Indianapolis is a detractor, as well. Indeed, the airport has nine fewer daily nonstop options than a year ago.
Northwest and US Airways are among carriers making cuts, reducing the airport’s average daily departing flights on major airlines to 155 from a peak of 208 in 2005.
Overall, flights to and from Indianapolis dropped roughly 7 percent, to 29,270, in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with the same period the previous year.
On top of that, Brancatelli argued that the sour economy is crimping the convention industry.
"The issue is, who’s left doing group business or conventions anymore?" he said. "The market has fallen so far so fast that the issue is hoping you can hold on to what you had and maybe steal some market from someone else."
Globally, Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International expects 2009 to be another bleak year for the sector. Reductions will continue in bookings, travel, meeting and event budgets, staffing, and event attendance. Meeting planners anticipate their organizations’ holding 9 percent fewer meetings this year, mainly due to corporate budget cuts and high travel costs.
Convention business in Indianapolis seems to be holding steady, though. Conventions and meetings last year accounted for 496,000 room nights, down slightly from 507,000 the previous year. In 2008, the city hosted 564 groups compared with 555 the previous year.
Further, the ICVA expects the 20 largest conventions to produce $300 million in visitor spending this year, up from $275 million in 2008.