Tech district could boost Indianapolis’ convention business

The proposed 16 Downtown Technology District unveiled by city officials in June could be just what the doctor ordered to bolster Indianapolis’ bid to become a life-sciences research hub.

But indirectly, it also could help bolster efforts to attract highly coveted medical and life sciences conventions to the city.

The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association began an initiative in 2009 to bring more of those types of meetings to the city and have signed deals in the past few years to bring 40 medical conventions here through 2015.

It’s easy to understand ICVA’s strategy. The gatherings typically attract high-income attendees who buy first-class hotel rooms, pay fair market value for convention space, and eat in upscale restaurants.

As the life sciences and biotech sectors continue to grow, it makes sense that ICVA would tap into the burgeoning market, with Eli Lilly and Co. and the Indiana University School of Medicine, for instance, serving as a foundation.

The 16 Tech District can only aid ICVA’s cause, said Michelle Travis, the association’s senior vice president of sales.

“Half of our battle is getting people to Indianapolis,” she said. “Once they get here, they see what a great destination it is. Anything life sciences-related really helps us because it brings more focus on what we have here.”

Any progress on the tech district will be highlighted in ICVA marketing materials, and meeting planners visiting Indianapolis will get a firsthand look at construction as part of ICVA’s attempts to showcase the city’s life sciences offerings.

City officials announced details of the new tech district June 16. Redeveloping an industrial stretch northwest of downtown could attract hundreds of residents and dozens of high-tech companies to the area.

The ambitious urban renewal effort builds from a strategy discussed over more than a decade to turn the corridor between IUPUI and 16th Street into a life-sciences thoroughfare.

The idea is to create a trendy urban district where residents can live within blocks of work. The project could require $15 million to $20 million in public investment and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment. It is expected to take 10 to 20 years to complete.

Still, any progress could be enough to lure more biotech conferences to Indianapolis. The Holy Grail is BIO International, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world’s largest biotechnology advocacy.

The convention, which attracts roughly 15,000 attendees annually, held this year’s meeting June 27-30 in its headquarters city of Washington, D.C. BioCrossroads President and CEO David Johnson was among a local contingent promoting Indianapolis as a life sciences player.

“That is within our reach,” he said of the BIO conference. “Getting on the map for that, one thing we’d have to demonstrate is a biotechnology presence, and 16 Tech would really cement that.”

A project such as 16 Tech could serve as a destination to host breakout meetings and conferences related to any large life sciences convention that might choose Indianapolis, Johnson said.

In 2009, when ICVA launched its initiative to recruit more life sciences conventions, those conferences generated about 4 percent of Indianapolis’ convention and visitor business. The hope was that within a few years they would account for 20 percent.

The goal may have been a bit too ambitious, though ICVA is closing the gap. As of May, life sciences conferences accounted for 15 percent of the association’s future total business.

ICVA booked 26 medical- and life-sciences-type meetings in 2009, another 40 in 2010 and 12 through May of this year.

Organizations committing to Indianapolis include the American Physical Therapy Association (2015), American Association of Homes & Services for the Aging (2016), American Association of Diabetes Educators (2017) and American Dietetic Association (2020).

“Historically, these types of conventions will go to first-tier cities,” said ICVA’s Travis. “It took a couple of wins for people to start talking about Indianapolis.”

Indianapolis is up against Seattle and Baltimore as well as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Diego—all prime competitors for life sciences and medical events.

With the expansion of the Indiana Convention Center, which debuted in February, the city may have a better chance of competing, said Phil Ray, general manager of the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown and chairman of the Indiana Hotel & Lodging Association.

“I think that there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “I think the 16th Street project plays into the strategy the city has undertaken. Long term, I think it’s a great way to go.”

The city could get more of an immediate boost, however, from a June BioCrossroads report that said 220 life sciences startups have launched in Indiana since 2004. Further, since 2002, total jobs added in the overall life sciences sector grew by 8,800, an increase of 21 percent.•

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