Outlying counties, tired of waiting for Indianapolis convention spillover, set own strategies

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Indianapolis has built a tidy book of business in the convention trade.

Confabs ranging from the National FFA to Gen Con generated nearly 22 million visitors and $3.5 billion in spending in 2006 alone, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates and Global Insight.

With a new airport terminal and Lucas Oil Stadium up and running, and the Indiana Convention Center expansion well under way, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association has its sights set on competing with cities the likes of Chicago, Denver and St. Louis for convention and tourism business.

However, some industry insiders worry that, while Indianapolis is busy chasing bigger conventions, adjoining counties may raid the cupboard made plentiful by investments within Marion County, particularly downtown.

Border clashes between Indianapolis and its doughnut counties over smaller, but profitable, gatherings could deteriorate into counties’ pointing out each other’s weaknesses and ultimately ruining an overall positive image.

That would be bad for all parties concerned, said ICVA President Don Welsh.

"The idea is to build on the assets of the entire region, and draw traffic here from across the country," Welsh said. "We want to move customers across county lines regardless of county lines."

While ICVA officials are calling for a regional approach to marketing and growing its convention and tourism trade, some of the doughnut counties have their own ideas.

Hendricks County—little more than a stone’s throw from the Indianapolis International Airport terminal—plans to construct its own convention center with 30,000 square feet of meeting space and 150 to 200 hotel rooms. Johnson County to the south is contemplating forming its own convention and visitors bureau. And Hamilton County is focused on building up the U.S. 31 corridor and launching a youth sports initiative.

"It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a competitive issue for Indianapolis," said Rob Hunden, president of Hunden Strategic Partners, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in destination attractions. "I’m surprised it hasn’t happened to a greater extent already."

The outlying counties can’t compete with the sheer size of the Indiana Convention Center, which will have 564,000 square feet of space when its expansion is finished in December 2010. Lucas Oil Stadium adds another 185,000 square feet of convention space.

But small and midsize meetings and conventions outside Indianapolis can nibble away at smaller Indianapolis gathering places like the Marten House & Lilly Conference Center and JW Marriott, which is under construction.

Uncommon ground

Hendricks County Convention and Visitors Bureau officials say there’s no intent to take shots at Indianapolis. But they want to maximize their own tourism business and differentiate their county.

"Product is what drives travel, and the product in Hendricks County differs greatly from the product throughout the region including Indianapolis, Hamilton County, Boone County and all the other doughnut counties," said Emory Lencke, Hendricks County CVB executive director.

As the convention and tourism trade grew in central Indiana, the doughnut counties tired of simply waiting for overflow from Indianapolis events, said Hunden, who worked in former Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s administration in the 1990s. In recent years, the doughnut counties have become more self-reliant, attracting high-end hotel chains within their borders, capitalizing on their own attractions, and marketing themselves to the outside world.

In some cases, the doughnut counties are pairing with each other. Hendricks and Hamilton counties have partnered on several events, and Lencke has counseled Johnson County officials about the benefits of forming their own convention and visitors bureau.

"We need to rethink our position," said Johnson County Councilwoman Anita Knowles. "We can’t just wait for events like the Final Four or Super Bowl to get a trickle-down economic impact. We have to take advantage of the unique things we have here."

But no doubt, Welsh said, some of the appeal of the doughnut counties is their easy access to a clean, safe, easy-to-navigate major metropolitan area, with attractions like The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Zoo, NCAA headquarters, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium.

Welsh worries that multiple marketing campaigns from the same region could confuse potential visitors.

"If every county had a tourism effort, you’d have 92 messages from the state of Indiana, and that leads to serious inconsistency," Welsh said.

Infighting over taxes

Part of the rub comes when visitors stay in doughnut county hotels, Hunden said. Innkeepers’ taxes in those counties stay in those counties.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis is stuck dealing with leasing, operations—and, in many cases, expenses—of some of the attractions that draw visitors, namely Lucas Oil Stadium, Victory Field, Conseco Fieldhouse and the Indiana Convention Center.

That’s especially troublesome when events like the FFA convention, which is held in downtown Indianapolis, fills many hotel rooms outside Marion County. Hamilton County, for instance, sells 4,000 hotel room nights to attendees.

"I believe there needs to be a more shared financial participation for people outside the city who enjoy the benefits from Indianapolis being a thriving urban destination," Welsh said. "I will admit, I get a bit jealous when I see those hotel rooms in Hamilton County filling up."

The doughnut counties support many of those venues through food and beverage taxes, said Brenda Myers, Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director.

While Myers admits some Hamilton County visitors enjoy Indianapolis attractions, she said the primary reason the county has grown from 644 hotel rooms in 1991 to nearly 3,000 now is due to a self-supported marketing campaign and in-county attractions such as Conner Prairie and Verizon Wireless Music Center.

Direct visitor spending in Hamilton County during the same period has grown from $35 million to $250 million annually.

"We make no apologies for the strategy we’ve executed," Myers said. In fact, she added, many Hamilton County visitors cross over to spend money in Marion County at such attractions like the Keystone at the Crossing shopping mecca.

Hendricks County officials downplay the role of Indianapolis infrastructure.

"We don’t have people staying out here for Colts games, and we don’t see a significant impact from Final Fours," said Jaime Bohler Smith, Hendricks County CVB associate director. "The main things that bring people to Hendricks County [are] O’Reilly Raceway Park, which is within our own county, and the NHRA teams and facilities in Brownsburg and home-grown events like the Heartland Apple Festival."

Collision course

While all sides downplay the potential for conflict, the decidedly self-serving strategies sometimes collide. Welsh, for instance, who joined the ICVA from Seattle late last year, hopes to bring more visitors to Indianapolis through a youth sports movement, including all-star tournaments and other events. Hamilton County is also making a major push in that area.

Hunden said that, instead of fighting, the sides could come together to form a powerful regional sporting alliance.

The alternative isn’t attractive, Hunden added.

"It can tear an entire region down," Hunden said. "Instead, if they combined forces—sharing resources and responsibilities—they could become a regional powerhouse."

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