New convention chief impressed with Indianapolis’ vision

An executive headhunter had been dogging Leonard Hoops for years about various career opportunities around the country.

He always dismissed the leads—until recently, when he was told about the CEO vacancy at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

Now the executive vice president and chief customer officer of the San Francisco Travel Association, Hoops had been to Indianapolis on a study mission in 2005, when he was chief marketing officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“That was my first trip to Indianapolis. I was really, really impressed with the vision of the community,” said Hoops. “Indianapolis was everything Sacramento talked about but hadn’t done.”

The 46-year-old superstar of the hospitality industry takes over the ICVA post around race time, in May, and plans to spend three months soaking up the scene before polishing his strategy. He’s trying not to build any “preconceived notions” of how he’ll go about it.

The general goals are clearer. Hoops arrives at a pivotal time, with $3 billion in new downtown meeting and lodging space opening, including a $275 million, 350,000-square-foot expansion of the Indiana Convention Center. That project has doubled the size of the already cavernous facility, and a sluggish economy makes Hoops’ challenge even that much more difficult.

“The bottom line is we need to fill that convention center,” Hoops said about one of the goals handed down by ICVA’s chairman, Michael Browning.

Another: “To help build the Indy brand,” Hoops said.

Hoops didn’t directly compete with Indianapolis while in San Francisco, one of the nation’s hottest locations for conventions thanks in part to natural attractions Indianapolis can’t top on its sunniest of days. Conventions tend to rotate to different parts of the country in cycles.

“Indianapolis definitely has a first-tier convention and meeting product,” albeit one still coming into its own in notoriety compared with a Chicago, Las Vegas or Orlando, he added.

Hoops said Indianapolis has a lot going for it, including its hospitality. “It’s the best combination of savvy people with friendly people,” he said.

He also downplays the Midwest’s supposed weather disadvantage. “I’m looking out my window,” he said from his San Francisco office. “It’s 45 degrees and pouring rain.”

Hoops is regarded as a rising star in the hospitality industry.  He was named among the “25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales & Marketing” by Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International.

Hoops replaces Don Welsh, who left Indianapolis in January to head the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau.

“Indianapolis has developed an exceptionally attractive convention and meeting package to go with its international reputation as a sports fan’s dream city,” Hoops said in a written statement.

Officials declined to say how much Hoops would be paid until the ICVA board formerly approved his compensation. Welsh was paid a base annual salary of $280,000 and was eligible for $56,000 in annual performance incentives.

In San Francisco, Hoops led a staff of 40. His new job in Indianapolis, which he’ll begin May 31, involves a staff of 59 and an annual budget of $13 million.

Hoops also arrives ahead of the 2012 Super Bowl scheduled for Indianapolis next February, assuming a labor dispute between players and the National Football League doesn't cancel it.

Hoops’ "proven sales results, extensive marketing expertise and strong convention-industry knowledge make him the ideal person to take Indianapolis to the next level and capitalize on the city’s new investments,” ICVA chairman Browning said in a prepared statement.

Among work in San Francisco, Hoops played a role in the renovation and expansion planning for San Francisco’s Moscone convention center. He helped manage a network of 13 international tourism development offices.

San Francisco has had a strong draw from both domestic and international visitors, with such attractions as Chinatown, Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco drew an estimated 16 million visitors last year spending upward of $8 billion. The ICVA points to a study by Vantage Strategy that says about 18 million people visit the Circle City annually, with an economic impact of $3.4 billion.

Hoops recently told the San Francisco Examiner that hotel worker strikes were creating a “labor cloud” over that city and could threaten its tourism industry.  He said San Francisco needed to attract more business travelers, who tend to spend more per person than leisure travelers.

Hoops’ 25 years of California convention experience also includes a role as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a similar role at San Jose’s bureau.

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