Experts doubt Indianapolis can lure huge conventions

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Indianapolis already hosts three of the top 200 conventions in the country. But additional meeting space coming online late next year could help the city double the number.

"It’s really a fight among the biggest convention centers to get those [top conventions]," said Rob Hunden, a Chicago-based hotel consultant. "But if [Indianapolis] can snag even two or three, that’s not so bad."

The largest conventions calling Indianapolis home are the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (65th), Adventure Communications’ Dealer Expo (70th) and the Archery Trade Association (164th), according to a Tradeshow Week rank by square feet of space.

Still, other industry experts remain skeptical Indianapolis has what it takes to draw the largest conventions. Unawareness of its budding status as an event destination, particularly among some insiders, underscores challenges in selling the expansion to trade associations.

Take, for instance, remarks from David Brull, vice president of the Chicago-based Trade Show Exhibitors Association, who sized the situation up this way: Indianapolis is not "going to get the monster shows, but the mid-size ones that are looking for a more economical venue."

And Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events in Dallas, said Indianapolis couldn’t in "100 years" attract the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show held annually in Las Vegas.

The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, charged with attracting events to the city, might concede that one. Still, while lauding Indianapolis for its cosmopolitan feel, Hacker relegated the city to second-tier status.

However, Hacker said roughly 10,000 conventions are held annually in the United States, providing the ICVA plenty of opportunity to bring in more meetings.

"The backbone of the industry [is] those much smaller events," Hacker said. "Many of those could become prospects for Indianapolis."

Hamstrung by a $10.5 million annual budget, among the smallest of its competitors, the ICVA hoped to receive up to $5 million more this year for promotions from the city’s Capital Improvement Board. CIB provides nearly three-quarters of the ICVA’s revenue. But given CIB’s budget deficit, additional funding seems unlikely.

That’s not stopping the ICVA’s quest to market Indianapolis as a step above other Midwestern rivals as a convention destination and portray it as an alternative to Chicago.

Bolstering the ICVA’s efforts is the Indiana Convention Center’s $275 million, 420,000-square-foot expansion that is expected to be finished in December 2010.

Including Lucas Oil Stadium, the ICVA will have 1.2 million square feet of convention space, 65 percent more than it had in the convention center and RCA Dome.

Last month, ICVA executives flew to Washington, D.C., to court 28 organizations that have never booked a meeting in Indianapolis. They included the American Bankers Association, American Dental Education Association, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Nuclear Energy Institute.

The ICVA has an office in Washington, D.C., and has added a sales representative to the location. Roughly 13,000 national associations are based in the capital.

ICVA chief Don Welsh is confident the trip will result in five to seven requests for proposals, which would at least give him and his staff a serious chance to pitch the city and its improved convention center.

In addition, the ICVA is flying meeting planners into the city to give them a day-long personal tour and dispel any misconceptions they might have, Welsh said.

"Because once we get them here," he said, "they realize we are a lot more similar to Chicago than we are to many other Midwestern cities."

Indeed, concurred Hacker of the exhibitions association. Indianapolis’ compact downtown, which features several hotels close to the convention center, has helped the city become a contemporary venue for conventions, he said.

Furthering Indianapolis’ cause is the JW Marriott hotel complex under construction near the convention center. The 1,626-room, $450 million project will be anchored by a 1,005-room, upscale JW Marriott hotel.

That alone has enabled the ICVA to court new prospects, Welsh said. In fact, the hotel and the stadium helped the city land the 2012 Super Bowl.

But the expansion of the convention center is about more than reeling in the big fish. Most such additions in Indianapolis and other cities instead are constructed to accommodate multiple meetings concurrently, industry experts said.

It’s the only way the ICVA can meet its growth goals to justify the expansion, Welsh said. The city typically hosts 40 to 45 conventions annually. The target now has risen to more than 70.

"All they do is, day in and day out, work existing accounts or prospect new accounts," Welsh said of his sales staff.

In January, the ICVA named veteran hospitality executive Ronnie Burt Jr. its senior vice president of sales. He arrived from the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association where he was vice president of convention sales and services.

Without the additional $3 million to $5 million in CIB funding, though, the ICVA can’t hire more salespeople to help accomplish its growth goals, Welsh said.

One of the organization’s tallest tasks will be getting Dealer Expo, which focuses on motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle supplies, to renew its contract after its current agreement expires in 2011. Drawing 36,000 people annually, the convention is among the city’s largest.

The ICVA can ill afford to lose it, after the California-based Performance Racing Industry and locally based Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association both bolted for larger facilities.

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